7/05/2011

Book Look - The Monk, Matthew Lewis



Don't be scared off by the book's 18th century publication date: this story is great fun - as shocking and titillating as anything in modern lit. The Monk has it all: scandal, conspiracy, murder, villainy, hypocrisy, incest, rape, betrayal, ghosts, demons, corpses, and enough gruesome detail to rival an episode of CSI.

The story is set in Spain during the time of the Inquisition, and focuses on the corruption and eventual destruction of Ambrosio, "The Man of Holiness", a Capuchin monk whose outward piety conceals vanity and a lust for power, from which seeds grow spiraling tendrils of evil that eventually destroy him, with a little help from Old Smokey himself. (Lucifer actually makes a juicy cameo appearance at the end - don't miss it!).

Love how "meaty" the story is: within the main narrative, Lewis embeds digressions and side stories that add to the entertainment and general spookiness of the story. Caught up in the main narrative (in which the Brave Cavalier Lorenzo attempts to woo the Innocent Virgin Antonia; Noble Raymond attempts to rescue his True Love Agnes from the schemes of Villainous Family Members and an Evil Prioress; and the Mad Monk Ambrosio is gradually corrupted), you may be tempted to skip these parts, but don't! Elvira's sad history, the story of Lorenzo's brush with bloodthirsty bandits in the forests of Germany, and especially the tale of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew are fully as diverting as the main narrative.

Love, too, how the author incorporates all the stereotypical elements of gothic fiction - mad monks, wicked nuns, brave knights, naïve virgins, scheming family members, crypts, corpses, and sorcery - while still managing to create a story that feels fresh, literate, and well-crafted. Lewis may have picked a dubious genre, but there's nothing dubious about his plotting or prose. Indeed, Ambrosio's decline is presented in so gradual and logical a fashion, will shock you almost as much as it shocks him at the end to realize how far he's fallen, and how fast.

Finally, love how the book lays the foundation for so much literature that's come since. Reading along, you'll catch definite whiffs of Bronte, Poe, Hawthorn, Byron, Eco, and Perez-Reverte, among others. Were I a scholar, would love to research how this text provides a bridge between the old-style horror of medieval morality plays and modern lit.

Because, beneath the shock and titillation, this is at its core a morality play, in which evildoers are punished and virtue is rewarded. (Except for a few necessarily tragic consequences, because evil can't happen without victims, after all). A little spooky, a little melodramatic, a lot entertaining, and good triumphs over evil yet again ... what more do you want from a book?

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