Tuesday, October 04, 2016

31 Days of Gothic Romance | The Monk

I want to make it clear that my focusing on gothic romance for 31 days isn't because I'm some kind of expert on it. I love the genre, but I'm way under-read in it and one my reasons for doing this is to build a list of books and other things that I want to experience. Matthew Lewis' The Monk falls into that category.

The innovation that Lewis brought to the genre was luridness. It had been relatively chaste up to that point, with horrors mostly being threatened or suggested. Lewis' titular character doesn't just threaten and menace an innocent young woman; he does terrible things to her. And to other characters in order to get to her. And the novel spends a great deal of time chronicling the monk Ambrosio's fall into depravity. He's already not a nice guy as the novel opens - he's proud and he lusts after the Virgin Mary, to start with - and he sinks deeper from there, encouraged by supernatural forces.

The Monk ticks all the boxes expected of a gothic romance, but cranks them up to 11 in a way that made it as popular as it was condemned. People loved to talk about how blasphemous and immoral it was almost as much as they loved to read it.

One of the people it bothered was Anne Radcliffe, from yesterday, who liked to evoke chills by suggesting things unseen. Like Alfred Hitchcock, she believed that what the audience imagined was always more powerful than what was explicitly seen or described. Keeping the analogy of movie directors, Matthew Lewis was more like Wes Craven, wanting to horrify audiences with the gory details. It's probably not a coincidence then that Radcliffe published The Italian - her own story of a depraved clergyman who terrorizes a young woman - shortly after the release of The Monk. Even though I once swore off any more Radcliffe, I'm curious now to read and compare The Monk and The Italian.

I haven't read The Monk, but I have seen the 2011 film adaptation by director Dominik Moll, starring Vincent Cassel as Ambrosio. It's been a few years since I've seen it, but my memory is that it's a fairly faithful, if heavily abridged version of the novel's plot. I found it challenging, both in terms of artistic style and content, but I also loved it as a cautionary tale against giving in to selfish passions. I'm hoping to have the same reaction to Lewis' novel.

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