August 31, 2002

YOU CAN'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER :

In Those Days, Too, Blood and Sex Could Make a Best Seller (EMILY EAKIN, August 31, 2002, NY Times)
In 1796, a 20-year-old Oxford University graduate named Matthew Lewis published "The Monk," a Gothic shocker unlike anything English society had ever seen. The novel told a lurid tale of sex and murder involving a Roman Catholic priest: Ambrosio, the revered head of a Capuchin monastery in Madrid, rapes and stabs Antonia, a local beauty of noble descent, in the crypt of the convent next door. The macabre nature of his crime is conveyed in graphic detail. The priest drugs her with an opiate so powerful that she is presumed dead and carted off in a coffin to the crypt, where, as soon as she revives, he forces himself on her and then finishes her off with two dagger blows to the heart. In an earlier fit of lustful frenzy, he also strangles her mother.

A succès de scandale 200 years ago, the novel is being reissued this month by Oxford University Press with a terrific new introduction by Stephen King. By dressing the book in a 1950's-style noir cover - featuring a shrouded monk in sinister silhouette and the title in ghostly, backlit typeface - Oxford seems to be trying to have it viewed as a precociously modern work. [...]

When Lewis dashed off the book in 10 weeks while working at the British Embassy in The Hague, the Gothic novel was just a few decades old. Its progenitor, most scholars agree, was Horace Walpole, the author of the mildly spooky romance "The Castle of Otranto" (1764) and one of the first novelists to abandon all pretense to moral instruction in favor of sheer entertainment. Walpole's celebration of romantic love and fondness for vengeful ghosts and moldering castles became hallmarks of the Gothic.

"If this new genre had an Elvis Presley, it was Walpole," [Stephen] King writes. "Then came Matthew Lewis, the genre's first punk, the Johnny Rotten of the Gothic novel."


If you pick it up because of the Mickey Spillane-style cover you're going to be disappointed. It defies reading.
Posted by at August 31, 2002 8:59 AM

  

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