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The Horror! The Horror!

"Monk" Lewis's Gothic masterpiece.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By ALAN JACOBS
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As King writes, the settings and plots of Ann Radcliffe, who even more than Walpole popularized the Gothic novel, "would be familiar to any modern-day reader of Harlequin or Silhouette Romances. There are rooms reputed to be haunted by ghosts, hidden corridors, and sinister fellows like Count Montoni; but in the end there is a rational explanation for everything, and the heroine trundles happily off to the altar with her virginity and her serene worldview intact."

Not for Lewis such "rational explanations." The truth for his characters usually turns out to be far worse than they have imagined. Though Lewis borrows some of the Radcliffean apparatus (and, oddly, a number of her characters' names), his idea of storytelling owes more to Shakespeare's strange younger contemporary Webster, who has one of his characters torment a virtuous woman by surrounding her with dancing, screaming madmen and by showing her cunningly wrought waxwork figures intended to convince her that her husband and children are dead. (The stage direction Gives her a dead man's hand is a memorable one.)

BUT LEWIS, who has no need to worry about what can convincingly be represented on stage, is free to go far beyond the most sinister moments in Webster--and he's happy to exercise his freedom: Stephen King doesn't call him "the Johnny Rotten of the Gothic novel" for nothing. Such are the horrors Lewis puts his characters through that, when we are told of one minor character that "in an excess of passion She broke a blood-vessel, and expired in the course of a few hours," the only surprise is that it didn't happen to the lot of them.

Lewis's narrative exuberance is certainly that of a young man--the book reminds me of the screenplays written by over-caffeinated undergraduates--but that exuberance is also the key to the book's success and lasting influence. By the time Lewis is done, few standard narrative tricks remain in his bag; and almost every scene reminds us of some other story, whether the Prometheus myths, Sleeping Beauty, some of the stories in Boccaccio's "Decameron," or "Paradise Lost." There's a lengthy story-within-the-story that is obviously derived from "Don Quixote," and just when you think Lewis can't throw anything else into the cauldron, he comes up with a riff on Oedipus.

Now, to some degree Lewis's imagination is simply that of the typical adolescent: When he describes for us a magical mirror that enables a man to watch an innocent girl disrobe before taking a bath, or when the same man uses what amounts to a date-rape drug on the same girl--only to be thwarted at the last moment by the sudden appearance of her mother at the bedroom door--we realize that it is but a few short steps from "The Monk" to "Animal House" or "American Pie." But however short those steps, they are significant, for in Lewis's fictional universe such instruments and charms are the province of black magic and the worship of Satan.

Lewis leavens his lumps of misery with humor, in what he clearly hopes is a Shakespearean manner--he even has a Porteress at a convent gate who is supposed to remind us of the Porter in "Macbeth." (Indeed, almost every chapter in "The Monk" is preceded by an epigraph from Shakespeare; the very first one lets us know that Lewis's Ambrosio, the monk of the book's title, is modeled on Angelo from "Measure for Measure.") And there's a nice moment when one Dame Jacintha exclaims, "Oh! I am the most unfortunate woman alive! My House is filled with Ghosts and dead Bodies, and the Lord knows what besides; Yet I am sure, nobody likes such company less than I do."

But such comic relief notwithstanding, Lewis is forthright in setting the moral context for his tale: The deceits, imprisonments, tortures, rapes, and murders that litter the book's pages are clearly marked as the Devil's work. Perhaps, as in Mozart and da Ponte's "Don Giovanni" (another work "The Monk" seems to have drawn on), the presence of dark spirits and supernatural powers is just part of the show--adding thrills and chills--but it has its effect nonetheless. When, at that opera's end, the animate statue of the Commendatore cries out for Don Giovanni to repent, then drags the rake down into the flames of Hell, that's not merely the frisson of aesthetic pleasure you feel at the back of your neck; it's the almost imperceptible rising of your suppressed recognition that sins will be punished.