If you read a classic Gothic novel—Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, et cetera—then you have to prepare yourself for huge chunks of time where nothing happens. For every cool scene full of lush descriptions and palpable atmosphere, there will be three where dinner is described in great detail or a hilarious anecdote about a local noble’s horse is spread across eighty pages.
But not The Monk, the little-known Gothic novel by Matthew Lewis. Though written in the overblown language and full of the melodrama associated with books of its times period, The Monk always has something going on, and that something is often exciting, entertaining, and downright evil.
The chief storyline of The Monk is that of Abbot Ambrosio, a monk revered in Spain for his holiness, piety, and speaking ability. But Ambrosio’s resolve is shaken when he discovers that his much-loved apprentice Rosario is in fact a woman in disguise—a woman who also happens to be a temptress and sorceress. Over the course of a few weeks, Ambrosio is ushered into a world of sex, death, and black magic, loving and loathing every minute of it as he goes. Along the way, the reader also encounters bloodthirsty robber gangs, bloody ghost nuns, and eventually the Fallen One himself.
Sadly, The Monk never goes full Marquis de Sade in its sex and violence. Lewis uses the language of the time to avoid graphically describing the acts committed by Ambrosio. That said, the lust, passion, and shame surrounding Ambrosio’s fall is so vivid, and the action sequences between his blasphemies so fast-paced and outrageous, that one is content to soak up the ambience rather than rush wide-eyed through the Gothic equivalent of a Penthouse Forum story.
Though it may not freak out your parents on sight—Lewis’ book is not nearly as well-known as it should be—The Monk is a strange, fun, and titillating read that will have your average pot-stirrer in stitches and suspense until its mind-blowing conclusion.