Ambrosio, the title character of Matthew Lewis' The Monk, is the most renowned man in Madrid, a man so virtuous that he never ventures out of the walls of his monastery, except once a week to deliver a sermon to the people of the city. He's so virtuous that someone jokes that he "knows not the difference between man and woman"--but this naivete becomes the breeding ground for his corruption. Ambrosio, seduced by a devoted female follower who gains access to the monastery by pretending to be a monk, slowly but surely gives himself over to his insatiable lust, which leads him to kidnap, rape, and murder.
The Monk caused quite a scandal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented that a member of Parliament could write such a book. It shocked Ann Radcliffe, because its method is so different from hers--instead of teasing us with the spectral suggestion of horrible events, Lewis makes us face the gruesome head-on. This works because Lewis has a sense of humor, and even when writing about the most shocking material, he seems to understand that its fundamental ridiculousness. I said in my review of Radcliffe's The Italian that I don't think her work holds up in the 20th century because the bar of what shocks us is so much higher, but The Monk remains engaging because, while it doesn't really shock either, it remains a terrific black comedy:
As She uttered these last words, She lifted her arm, and made a motion as if to stab herself. The Friar's eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger. She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed. The weapon's point rested upon her left breast: And Oh! that was such a breast! The Moon-beams darting full upon it, enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb.
In fact, what makes this passage and others like it so great is the way that it treats this material with so little seriousness: I can understand why the Coleridges and Radcliffes of the world found such a dark mixture of violence and sexuality disturbing, but the winking pretentiousness of the phrase "beauteous Orb" seems like it ought to deflate such revulsion.
(One exception to this--and here I'll issue a SPOILER ALERT--is the episode late in the novel when a pregnant woman named Agnes, separated from her lover and forced into the nunnery, is locked in the dungeon by the evil Prioress where she gives birth. Without food, the child dies and Agnes begins to waste away, but she is unable to part from the body of the child, so she holds on to it until it becomes a "mass of putridity." That I found legitimately shocking.)
Lewis uses the story of Ambrosio as a back-drop for a collection of Gothic tales he's collected from other sources: There's the kindly homeowner who murders the travelers who pass the night in his house, and the ghost of the Bleeding Nun, who appears at the stroke of one every five years. There are incantations of Lucifer, who appears as an attractive young man. (Lewis himself was more or less openly homosexual.) Each of these stories is really fantastic (and if I hadn't just written a fifteen-page paper on the novel, I'd have a lot more to say about them). You get the sense that, even though the Gothic tradition he was working in wasn't something as codified or established as we think of it today, Lewis was really interested in pushing the boundaries of the expectations of the genre, and his frenetic, voracious use of these tales is surprisingly seamless.
Ultimately, Lewis was taken to court, and forced to republish The Monk without murder, rape, descriptions of nudity or accounts of witchcraft. (All that was left, I imagine, was the introductory poem.) Someone accused me the other day of liking "stuffy" novels--which, in some cases, is a fair dig. But The Monk is pretty much "Exhibit A" why equating "old" with "stuffy" is idiotic: How many novels from the twentieth century are as bold, irreverent, or cathartic?