The classic Gothic novel, The Monk, was written by Matthew G. Lewis ( 1775 – 1818) when the author was in his teens. It tells the story of a respected church leader who loses all self control and is tempted by Lucifer.
Ambrosio is a monk noted for his piety and stirring sermons. His close companion at the monastery is a young novice named Rosario. He, too, is renowned for his piety and gentle manner. It is soon revealed, however, that Rosario, who always obscures his face under a cowl, is actually a woman named Matilda. She attempts to seduce Ambrosio, but fails. When told she must leave the monastery, she requests being permitted to take a rose bush as a memento. As Ambrosio's hand reaches to pull out the rose bush as a gift, a deadly snake bites him and leaves him hovering between life and death.
As Ambrosio languishes on his sickbed, Matilda secretly intervenes while he lies unconscious and sucks the poison from his wound. As Ambrosio revives, Matilda falls sick, having consumed the snake's deadly poison. On her deathbed, about to expire, she manages to finally seduce Ambrosio. He unleashes all his ferocious passions, while Matilda is in the process of dying.
Matilda is doomed, or is she? She reveals a secret to Ambrosio: life can mysteriously be restored. She wanders into a cemetery and calls upon Lucifer. The two make a pact and Matilda is saved. But soon Ambrosio, unable to check his desires, is tempted into a world of illicit pleasures superbly organised by the adroit Matilda.
The Monk is a stunning piece of decadence, littered with bold images, lurid scenarios and red hot temptation. The book excels at both titillating and shocking with it presentation of sexual lust - and its high price. Lewis's story also shows how the church's sexual repression can unleash terrible monsters. The overzealous nuns, who take in a young woman who has got herself pregnant out of wedlock, treat her with astonishing cruelty. In many instances it's hard to tell whether Matthew Lewis's aim is to moralise or excite. His muscular prose creates fabulous images. The first appearance of Lucifer is extraordinary:
“He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead; Two crimson wings extended themselves from his shoulders; and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played round his head, formed themselves into a variety of figures, and shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of precious Stones.”
The Marquis de Sade declared himself a fan of The Monk. Its resonant mix of psychology, sex, desire and religion make it a story that sticks deep in the mind and soul. The horror ending, where Lucifer makes his reappearance, is truly frightening.
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books