Explosive in the terms of lurid and grotesque content, certainly. Matthew Lewis’s first novel, published in 1796 when its author was only 19, “The Monk” is the dynamitic spawn of two romances: one, classical medieval while the other, a modern classic.
Even today, the novel, while a delight to read, still inspires an attitude in the reader that the content is dangerously smutty; a fact that, if anything, attests further to the novel’s timelessness. The plot, if not already known by those who might have seen just one of the numerous, pitiful movie adaptions, concerns a Spanish monk, Ambrosio: a cloistered, vain fellow whose inspiring sermons have nevertheless earned him the loaded epithet that he “must have fallen from Heaven.”
Enjoying his status as the toast of Madrid, Ambrosio entertains few sinful longings or desires to escape his cell—that is, until a novice monk named Rosario inspires in him a deep friendship, unquestionably homoerotic, and reveals, shortly thereafter, that he is actually an enticing she, named Matilda. Despite, or because of his new, lustful feelings, Ambrosio determines that Rosario neé Matilda must quit the abbey post-haste. Though she agrees to his wishes, she does not obey them, and following a lengthy dramatic scene involving a snakebite and gradually developing feelings of lust, the two become—shockingly—lovers.
Add to that another story, that of the gallant Don Raymond and his relationship with Agnes, the sister of his friend, the Don Christoval. It’s a telling pseudo-tragedy, involving a scorned love affair (the results of which place Agnes in a nunnery), and the chilling folkstory of a bleeding nun.
Lewis is considered by many to be the father of the modern Gothic horror story who, alongside the mother of the genre, Ann Radcliffe, is responsible for giving us the modern ghost story and the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing villain motif. Bad guys prior to the time of Lewis were easily recognized by social status, manner of occupation, clothing choices, etc. Their grimaces, alongside the helpful hints of the all-seeing narrator, were enough to alert the reader that he should keep a keen eye for malicious behavior.
Not so with “The Monk.” At least, not immediately so. Ambrosio is the harsh and unsparing model of Catholic purity, who dreams and supplicates to the Madonna (67) and holds a bitter disregard for the sins of the world outside. His salacious fall caused an uproar when the book was published.
Even so, Lewis’s novel is admirable in it’s pushing of moral boundaries. Ambrosio sins within the first one hundred pages, though this is proven later to be only the first testing of the waters. The initial sin, Lewis suggests, is like the stone thrown into the lake whose graduating ripples constitute the aftermath. Though one cannot mediate the affect of the first stone, one may allow the affects to dissipate without further hindrance. Ambrosio however fails to regard his first sin as anything but eternally mortal: it is this attitude which preponderates the first act, turning lust into greed into gluttony into wrath into envy and even into the highest blasphemies.
Such is the excellent pacing that Lewis manages through “The Monk.” However, the novel is not without its faults. Ambrosio is a monk in name only, his virtue like a noise whose echo is heard from other characters but whose source is never delivered. Lewis does not bother to develop the character either, preferring to concentrate his energies on examining the monk’s primary sin of pride (ironically, in his own purported freedom from sin).
Contemporary horror fans have delighted in Lewis’s novel and will continue to do so despite the book’s shortcomings. To read “The Monk” is to experience the unfettered delights of a young writer, conscious of his own invention, who knows the controversy he is sure to inspire and sallies on despite, or perhaps because of, his knowledge.