(1796 /2016) Matthew Lewis, Oxford University Press, £8.99 / US$9.95, lii + 357pp , ISBN 978-0-198-70445-4
'New Edition' announces part of the back cover of this edition of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and there have been lots of editions given that the novel is 220 years old. The front cover shows a brooding, gloomy illustration of a monk by Francisco de Goya, no less, but you could just as easily take the cross out of the monk’s hand and substitute it with a chainsaw, et voila we have Leatherface lurking in the shadows, for the Monk is such a bogeyman “dead to the murmurs of conscience and resolved to satisfy his desires at any price.” Yes, an over-the-top description of what is an over-the-top horror classic.This new edition is part of the Oxford World Classics series so Lewis joins a list of well kent literary giants and on the speculative front these includes Shelley, Stevenson and Stoker as well as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, another gothic classic (and given its plot and setting and heroine might have influenced Lewis when he wrote The Monk). And since Oxford University Press are the publishers we not only get the novel but we get a 33 page introduction, 4 pages of textual notes, a 3 page bibliography, an 8 page chronology and 18 pages of explanatory notes. Why, we are almost 50 pages into the book before The Monk: A Romance even starts.
The tale concerns Ambrosio, the Abbot of a Capuchin monastery in Madrid who becomes infatuated with 15 year old Antonia and will let nothing get in the way of his desire for her, including breaking all the vows he has taken in a tale that includes rape, incest, murder, torture, supernatural beings, ghosts of nuns, a character based on the Wandering Jew and deals with the devil.
It is pretty lurid, shocking, ghastly stuff and reads like a demented soap opera with several strands of love interest, mistaken identity, people believed to be dead, false imprisonment, people disguising themselves as other people, even different sexes. Lewis has perhaps been unfairly labelled a one-hit wonder as far as writing books was concerned and the introduction is invaluable at putting the book into context regarding when it was written against a backdrop of a Europe on fire due to the impact of the French Revolution. Lewis wrote the book when he was just 19 and it was published when he was 20 and caused a sensation. Lewis was not named as author on the first edition, but his name appeared on the second edition along with the initials 'M.P.' to reflect that, yes, the author of this sensational gothic romance was now a Member of Parliament which might explain why he produced a slightly revised version, toning down some of the excesses and also to repair the damaged relationship he had with his father, although the lawsuit he was facing at the time might be the real reason for a 'calmer' version. It is interesting to note that other publishers had no qualms of printing unofficial versions of the book, such was its notoriety and sales success. After The Monk, Lewis devoted most of his writing career to writing highly successful plays and poetry and then gave up writing when his father died and he inherited a large fortune. He travelled, became friends with Byron and Shelley, and visited his plantations in the West Indies where he wrote against slavery, and then died from Yellow Fever on his way back at the age of 42.
Anyone interested in gothic fiction, or horror fiction, should read this classic. It’s very much of its time, but is still very readable, and the introduction and the explanatory notes are invaluable in explaining a landmark novel whose influence resonates down through the years and has become the inspiration for operas, several film versions starring the likes of Franco Nero, Paul McGann and Vincent Cassel. It has even inspired stage adaptations, musicals and Batman stories, not bad for the work of a 19 year old who wrote it over two hundred years ago.
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