The Monk

In 2006, I decided to read the works referenced in H. P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature.

I did make it through most of the Gothic novels he mentioned except for the American gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown. I didn’t review most of them though you will get a review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho at some point.

I did read the notorious William Beckford’s Vathek. Unfortunately, when I was in Bath, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his architectural folly Lansdown Tower.

And I agree with Lovecraft that Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer is the best of the Gothic novels he covers. (Though, from Lovecraft’s letters,  he doesn’t seem to have actually been able to get his hands on the whole novel, just excerpts.) You won’t be getting a review of it from me though.

As for the rest of the weird fiction Lovecraft mentioned, I’ve read a surprisingly large amount of it under the impetus of the Deep Ones reading group, part of LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition discussion group.

 A retro review from June 5, 2006 . . .

Review: The Monk, Matthew Lewis, 1796.Monk

It’s no coincidence that the opening epigraph of Lewis’ one and only novel is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Both works have pillars of public moral rectitude collapsing after encountering their first major temptation of carnality. Monk Ambrosio figures in for a penny, in for a pound, and starts the slide from mere sex to murder, incest, despair, and damnation.

Lewis’ streamlined prose abandons the detailed descriptions of Gothic architecture and Alpine vistas favored by his model Ann Radcliffe. And, in a plot of not two but four frustrated lovers, he crams many a gruesome incident and image. No Radcliffean rationalism for Lewis. Despite frequent criticms of the superstition of Spain during the Inquistion, this plot revels in the supernatural with curses, ghosts, Bleeding Nuns, Wandering Jews, and the Prince of Demons himself.

Yet, despite the melodrama, there is an air of psychological realism in how Monk Ambrosio rationalizes his escalation of evil. Perhaps more disturbing is the mind of Matilda, his first lover, and her willingness to advise and aid his evil even after he has sexually spurned her.

Stephen King’s introduction is, like many such introductions to classic works, an unfortunate spoiler of much of the plot. However, most of his observations are valid and interesting though I’m dubious that all English novels before Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto had moral purposes. (Lewis novel seems to have no serious moral statement except, perhaps, that the chaste life of the convent and monastery is unnatural.)

Oxford University Press seems to have taken the typesetting of this edition from an earlier one. A lot of asterisks show up in the text without accompanying footnotes. A minor annoyance to a novel that holds up well after more than 200 years.

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