Stephen King articles
by Matthew Lewis, Oxford University Press. Reviewed by David Carroll
First Appeared in Burnt Toast#4, 1990
I was going to say, that you cannot employ your time worse then in making verses. An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom everybody is privileged to attack; for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them.
Ambrosio, the Monk of the title, is causing a sensation in the town of Madrid, his charismatic sermons and saintly disposition have made him the talk of the town. But to a man such as Ambrosio, whose tremendous energy is all bottled within himself, dedicated to his faith, temptation is never far away. The snake in this man's garden comes in the form of Matilda, a beautiful young women who has insinuated herself into his abbey, and when a man such as Ambrosio falls from grace, the consequences are devastating.
Caught up in all this are Lorenzo and Raymond, two young cavaliers, Agnes, beloved of Raymond till her parents send her to a convent where she now bears his child, and the naïve Antonio, brought up unaware of the world's wickedness, thanks to an edited copy of the bible provided by her doting mother, Elvira (now there's a familiar name). Set these people against a background of the Spanish Inquisition, add a personal visit or two by Lucifer, a conceited aunt, a couple of vindictive nuns, riots, rape, several exceedingly gross scenes, and a theme of sexual repression, all this told by a naturally born story teller, and you have a remarkable book. Such is The Monk.
After this novel the author was branded Matthew 'Monk' Lewis for life. He was also unable to able to write another book with the impact of his first, though he quickly became a rich man thanks to his writing, translating and dramatisation of Gothic tales. He also become a successful Member of Parliament and eventually a plantation owner until his death at sea from yellow fever. Written by Lewis at the tender age of nineteen The Monk was immediately the centre of controversy and stringent demands were made for its banning, necessitating an abridged version to be released several months later. Still the controversy flared, especially once Lewis entered Parliament and put his name to the previously anonymous work, and Ann Radcliffe, a noted gothic author whose work had in part inspired it, was horrified by the book to the extent she wrote a novel, The Italian, in reply. But sales were extremely high (naturally, as Salman Rushdie would tell you, if you could find him) and it is always the unedited version that is reread and reprinted .
This is all really fascinating, you say, but surely I would have heard about something like that already? Well, not necessarily, as one of the strengths of this book is its lasting power. The Monk was first published in 1795, and is still in print 195 years on.
Not the oldest of the early gothic horror novels, a genre that originated in the mid-eighteenth century, The Monk is probably the one most accessible to the modern reader. Its strength is its story, told in a straightforward and very readable style that doesn't induce the tedium I normally associate with books of that era (I'm not a Jane Austen fan ). And even compared to the best of today's horror its events are still shocking, its revelations still relevant.
Being somewhat of a poet, Lewis has also scattered a fair few of his poems through-out the book (a practice a few other authors also indulge in) and while most aren't brilliant, they usually fit in quite well. Indeed one of them produces a most amusing scene (from which the above extract is taken) which shows he doesn't take himself quite as seriously as one might think.
If one must find some criticism with the novel, (and us reviewers always do) it would probably lie in the characterisation and rather roundabout narrative. All the good guys are really good (and often ineffectual and naïve to boot), the bad guys really bad. However this is simply a attribute of the era from which it comes and, as for the narrative, the book was written at a time when books were occasionally rejected for being too short. But even these aren't too much of a problem, the moral quandaries that Ambrosia goes through are extremely well handled, whilst Matilda is an extremely effective villain in her ambiguities. A point often raised against the book is the author's seeming uncertainty on some of the more crucial questions raised by his own novel. Though, as is again often stated, it is perhaps the author's age that precludes his work from too serious an analysis.
If you are interested in the origins of the genre, seeing how the horror tale has evolved over its many years of popularity, this would be a good place to start. Also The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horatio Walpole, The Italian (?) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe, Northanger Abbey (?) by Jane Austen, Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, and Nightmare Abbey (1818) by Thomas Love Peacock may be of interest. The latter is actually a send-up of the genre Peacock saw as an 'encroachment of black bile', with caricatures of the likes of Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and Coleridge. A book I wouldn't suggest looking at from the same period is Vathek (1786), by William Beckford, as it is excruciatingly boring, a sort of Gothic Arabian Nights gone wrong. In contrast The Castle of Otranto, the only other book on the list I have had time to read (besides Frankenstein, of course) is quite decent, if at times annoying and at others unintentionally funny. I also have access to a copy of Nightmare Abbey I'm going to try and read soon, and as for Frankenstein itself, a book that can also be seen as the first science-fiction novel, it's been years, but I certainly remember enjoying it at the time. If my local library is any guide, none of these books, or indeed The Monk itself, should be too hard to find.
And if none of this interests you terribly, The Monk can also be seen simply as a damned good read, though perhaps not at the standard of the best of today's fiction. You may even be able to find the film, as my copy is actually a 1973 NEL movie edition, though apparently the celluloid version has sunk without trace.
Whatever its faults, The Monk is a powerful and lasting novel. There are many great books that have been written in the last one and a half decades, but many of them will be lucky to be as readable after such a span as The Monk has already survived.
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