The Monk: Lewis, 18th century’s Stephen King

Halloween is the one time a year we allow ourselves to be scared. Most of us avoid fear the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. We simply change the channel to avoid the scary movie and we stay within our comfort zone to avoid our own psychological fears. However, during Halloween we sit wide-eyed confronting our fears, and if you are a vivid reader, it is the perfect time to pick up a Stephen King classic.

Instead of discussing the contemporary king of horror, Stephen King, I would like to discuss the first ever king of horror, Matthew Lewis. I always consider Matthew Lewis and his text, The Monk to be ahead of its time and comparable to the works of Stephen King. Although The Monk possesses several elements of the horror genre such as character doubling, gruesome deaths and the interrelatedness of characters, it also possesses one of the contemporary elements of horror a reader closely recognizes. This element is the supernatural becoming corporeal and is often employed by authors such as King.

Matthew Lewis published his Gothic classic, The Monk, at the age of nineteen in 1796, well before the public craved shock and horror within their novels. A reader only needs to view the popular late 1790s political and social cartoons depicting the repulsion of women reading The Monk to see its shocking impact. When examining Gothic works whether classic or contemporary, it is always important to keep in mind the difference between terror and horror. I discussed these differences between terror and horror in a previous opinion column focusing on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window.

The concepts behind the differences are still the same no matter the genre. Ann Radcliffe, writer and contemporary of Matthew Lewis defines the difference behind terror and horror. In Radcliffe’s essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, she states, “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” Radcliffe is defining terror as a type of fear which allows the reader to expand their senses. Terror engages the reader allowing them to take an active role in the dialogue, the other sensory details and the psychological aspects of the text. Horror, on the other hand, paralyzes the reader with fear. This fear disengages the reader from the text as he or she becomes shocked and passive onlookers.

Regarding The Monk and any Stephen King text, they employ horror. The main goal of these works is to scare the reader senseless and they do just that. Lewis’ text is the tragic tale of Capuchin Monk, Ambrosio, who breaks his vow of chastity. The breaking of this vow leads Ambrosio down the path of obsession, rape, incest and murder. The horror within The Monk, is the element which makes this text comparable to a contemporary King novel. Lewis plays on the reader’s expectations that a man of God would not be led astray. Lewis shatters the idea that religion is a refuge. Lewis leaves the beliefs of his readers crumbled and with the crumbling of their beliefs so does the solid ground on which the reader stands. By Lewis shattering the religious convictions of his readers, he creates the horror which the text instills.

The horror continues when the manifestation of the Madonna icon in Ambrosio’s bedchamber turns out to be the devil in disguise which is responsible for leading Ambrosio astray. For authors like Lewis and King, the devil is in the details. Lewis and King are able to use their writing ability to create horror lurking within everyday objects. Lewis creates horror by having the devil disguised in iconography. Lewis develops horror through objects further when he employs the setting of an Abbey. The Abbey turns into a house of horrors. For example, the mother abbess imprisons one of the characters in a damp, rat infested dungeon below the Abbey. As the mother abbes, the other nuns and the faithful parishioners remain devote and model symbols of religion above ground praying in the Abbey, the prisoner remains hypocritically beneath their feet as screams are squelched by music and prayers. The Abbey and dungeon become a character themselves as the horror which lurks in their midst becomes too physical to contain.

Lewis utilizes the natural elements in the setting to take on a life of their own. The ending scene witnesses a character (I will not reveal which character) being thrown to their death by the devil. The character painfully dies with only the river and rocky landscape as company. With the rise of natural elements and inanimate objects being brought to life by Lewis, it is no wonder centuries later the public would crave novels such as Stephen King’s where pictures and cars cause mayhem and take on a life of their own. If you are looking for a scare this Halloween, pick up this classic Gothic text and discover where the public’s fascination with horror began.