Have you heard of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. Back in the day (the 18th century), this novel represented everything that was wrong with Gothic novels: it was lewd, violent, morbid, and encouraged people to question authority and religion. Sounds like a lot of fun.
Ambrosio gives the best sermons ever, even though he’s an orphan who was left on the monastery’s doorstep as a baby. Women come to his church and swoon in the pews over his beautiful… oratory. A woman named Antonia is there when the book opens. So is a man named Lorenzo. So, OK, here we go. Ambrosio. Antonia. Lorenzo. Got it. Lorenzo doesn’t pay any attention to the sermon – he’s too busy staring at Antonia’s neck. So naturally he follows her home. They get to know each other.
Back to Ambrosio, though. A fellow monk in the monastery starts getting a little creepy nephew on Ambrosio. He’s horrified because he’s pretty interested, too. The young boy hurts himself, heals himself, and then Ambrosio gets hurt. The monk heals him, but in doing so reveals he’s actually a lady, named Matilda. So, just get rid of this, and… there! Matilda. Boyish girl, girlish boy, this works. Matilda has magical powers, apparently, and keeps asking Ambrosio if he wants to take advantage of them. For a while, the only powers Ambrosio takes advantage of are her more intimate ones.
Sex. I’m talking about sex. They get busy. Finally Ambrosio gets sick of her and wants to bone Antonia. So Matilda helps. She gives him an enchanted mirror, that watches Antonia while she’s sleeping. She gives him a branch from a tree that puts people to sleep. Look, I don’t know either. Trees make people sleepy all the time, right?
Back on the farm, Lorenzo’s friend, some guy who’s just like Lorenzo (that’s his name now, what do you want from me?), falls in love with a woman named Agnes. Agnes’s mom falls in love with some guy. This guy. There we go. She won’t allow the marriage, because she wants to get Stacy’s mom on This guy.
Oh, what, that’s too early-mid-2000s for you? Screw you.
So Agnes gets banished to a nunnery and This Guy helps her escape. He gets a carriage and waits at the end of her driveway like a boyfriend waiting for his girl because he’s taking her to prom and isn’t supposed to – which is exactly what he’s doing.
Except the ghost. Ghost! Agnes is supposed to show up in a nun’s outfit, because everyone thinks the house is haunted by a nun. This Guy gets the actual ghost of the nun instead. She curses him, find her bones, blah blah, and he gets sick. Then he meets the Wandering Jew in some random town, the Wandering Jew does some amazing Wandering Jew magic, and tells This Guy what to do, which This Guy does.
If this isn’t making sense to you, I’m right there with you. This part is a little weird and hard to follow. To this day I’m not exactly sure why Agnes couldn’t come when she said she would. But she ends up in a nunnery anyway. Next door to Ambrosio’s monastery.
That’s right, remember these people? Ambrosio waits until Antonia’s mother is sick, then kills her and takes Antonia back to his place – which is, of course, a dank, mildewed dungeon. Simultaneously, This Guy is banging on the gates of the nunnery, demanding Agnes be set free, since she wasn’t willing to be a nun. They’re forcing her. Except the Mother Superior’s pissed, since Agnes and This Guy got it on once a few months back, and Agnes is pregnant. So Agnes is in the dungeon too – they connect, because why not? – and she’s had her baby. The baby died, and Agnes will tell a very gruesome, very detailed account of what happened before and after the baby’s death down there. In doesn’t involve a burial service, that’s what I’m telling you.
Ambrosio hypnotizes Antonia with magic, Lorenzo hunts them down, Ambrosio stabs Antonia through the heart because no one can have her if he can’t, only to find out as she dies that they’re siblings.
Yes, of course they are. You didn’t think All My Children came up with this stuff, right? It just borrowed it from old novels. Ambrosio was an orphan, remember? He gets sent to the Spanish Inquisition, at which point the Devil himself makes an appearance, and screws Ambrosio and traditional Devil fashion.
Lorenzo’s bummed out, Agnes and This Guy get married, and that’s the end of the book.
So what the hell just happened?
The B plot – and I guess B stands for “back seat” because it comes out of nowhere, and goes back there until the climax – is the happy ending. Now, Gothic novels, especially old ones, don’t necessarily bother with happy endings, but they usually fake a moral. Sure, Ambrosio gets royally fucked, but people back then didn’t think the punishment matched the crime. Uh, crimes. That is, there was too much focus on the fun stuff – y’know, the rape, murder, and havoc – and not enough on virtues. The “moral” – and it does have one, it’s an eighteenth century novel – is basically that Catholicism is bad. No, seriously. Ambrosio wouldn’t have been such a dick if he’d been raised outside the cloister, because that doesn’t make one moral, it hides one from decisions. Or something.
Why should you read this book? It’s completely insane, and that makes it worth it right there. But it’s also got a great example of the classic deal with the devil – you know, the genie’s wishes that screw you over kind of thing. It has some wild magic, a great riot scene at the end, and it’s just really dark and messed up.
As with all eighteenth century novels, handle with caution. If you can’t deal with the way they’re written, don’t bother. Like Otranto, you won’t be missing the best experience of your life if you don’t pick this one up.
And just like before, we should ask – why is this a fantasy novel? It’s got witchcraft and temptation, darkness that nearly overwhelms everyone involved, random wizards – the Wandering Jew – and ghosts. But to me those are less important than the messed-up sexuality of the thing. That’s not necessary to fantasy as a genre, of course, don’t get me wrong. But it’s common, because the genre allows writers to get that kind of thing out without getting the book banned. In its own way, The Monk is related to the Sword of Truth novels or even some of the stranger Conan of Cimmeria stories – Conan gets it on in a wizard’s tomb, next to the wizard’s cooling body, at one point. But more on those stories later.