by Matthew Gregory Lewis
“Though I forgive your breaking your vows to heaven, I expect you to keep your vows to me.”
Well over 200 years old, The Monk details the fall of the most pious man the world knows. Ambrosia the hero-monk, the sinless man of God revered above all others, is softened by pride, seduced from his purity and mired in lust and murder as his appetites grow and Lucifer closes in.
Significant for many reasons, The Monk is considered one of the earlier Gothic tales, beating out Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde by a hundred years and Frankenstein by decades. It also has the distinction of its main villain being a devoutly religious man. Sorcery has a strong presence and while much of the plot is made possible by it the magic remains a background element. At the forefront is black and white morality, for once started down the path Ambrosia’s decisions propel him toward damnation.
As you might expect reading a book of this age comes with a few caveats including a slight language barrier and the impression stories were just told a little differently in that time. Readers are expected to have extra patience while it builds toward the payoff. You may feel confused a few times throughout the book and it doesn’t help that some of the characters have at least two names. However, this minor confusion is at last revealed as important and even intentional as certain details come to light by the end.
This is not Lansdale, where you sit down and read cover to cover as fast as you can through a lightning story. It’s a ponderous journey and a look into a time when religion was a major part of life. And this, depending on your interpretation, is not presented as a particularly positive thing. Zealots have always existed and will always exist as long as mankind persists; religion magnifies and focuses their actions. As The Monk demonstrates with an eye bent toward reality, history and superstition, this fanaticism is quite often extremely dangerous.
The Monk is a tale about darkness told from darkness. While the main character begins as a somewhat prideful but otherwise saintly holy man, the mitigated light that would normally be present in such a story barely exists at the onset and quickly dims until extinguished.
Also available free from Gutenberg, the Centipede Press edition merits special attention. Their book is massive, heavily illustrated and uses a heavy, thick paper stock. It’s superb in every way and highly recommended.