As Halloween Month continues, Balladeer’s Blog looks at a neglected work of American horror.
THE MONKS OF MONK HALL aka THE QUAKER CITY (1844-1845) – Written by George Lippard, this strange and macabre story was originally serialized from 1844-1845 before being published in novel form. This bloody, horrific work was America’s best-selling novel before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I always refer to this book as “Twin Peaks Goes To The 1840s.” On one level The Monks of Monk Hall deals with crime, corruption, drugs and sex-trafficking among many supposedly “respectable” citizens of Philadelphia the way Twin Peaks did with residents of the title town.
On another level the novel deals with supernatural horrors that lurk behind the Quaker City’s murders, vices and sexual perversions, again like the David Lynch series. The center of the darkness is Monk Hall, an old, sprawling mansion with an unsavory history and reputation. Many have disappeared into the bowels of the building, never to be seen again. The power players and criminals who mingle at the Hall in bizarre orgies, secret murders and drunken debauches are known as “Monks” – Monk Hall’s exclusive membership.
Think of Monk Hall as a combination of Twin Peaks establishments like the Black Lodge, One-Eyed Jacks and the Great Northern all rolled into one. The vast, multi-roomed Hall is honey-combed with secret passageways and trap doors. Beneath the mansion are a subterranean river plus several levels of labyrinthine catacombs filled with rats, refuse and the skeletal remains of the Monks’ many victims from the past century and a half.
The sinister staff of Monk Hall are happy to provide their members with all the sex, opium and other diversions that they hunger for behind their public veil of respectability. Throw in the occult practices of the members and there’s a sort of “American version of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club” feel to it. Among the novel’s more horrific characters:
DEVIL-BUG – The deformed, depraved and deranged bastard offspring of one of Monk Hall’s members and one of the many prostitutes who are literally enslaved there. Devil-Bug has spent his entire life in the Hall and has no other name. He is squat, incredibly strong and grotesquely ugly with one large gaping eye and one small, withered, empty socket on his face.
This monstrosity works as Monk Hall’s combination door-man, bouncer and executioner, gleefully murdering on demand and secreting the corpses away in the sub-basements beneath the mansion. Just to make him even more unwholesome, Devil-Bug sleeps next to the corpse of one of his victims and uses occupied coffins as furniture in his creepy rooms.
RAVONI – Interchangeably referred to as a sorcerer, mad doctor, astrologer and anatomist, this handsome but sinister man pulls the strings behind the supernatural evils of Philadelphia and vicinity.
Master of an occult method of eternal youth, Ravoni has been alive for over two hundred years. (The novel repeatedly says just two hundred years, but the villain refers to having been present at the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which happened in 1572, so it has to be longer)
Ravoni has powers of mesmerism, prognostication and can even raise the dead. He was the original owner of Monk Hall under another name long ago. Readers eventually learn the kind of dark rituals the man performed at the Hall but don’t learn the full extent of his evil plans until the climax of the novel.
Ravoni is one of the great neglected villains in American fiction. Part suave seducer, part forerunner of Oliver Haddo from Maugham’s The Magician, he also has elements of Balzac’s supernatural menace the Centenarian.
The scoundrel can use his mental powers to reduce victims to mindless automatons like living zombies, animated purely by his will. He has done this to the green-clad African-Americans in his service and often threatens to do this to Devil-Bug to keep him in check.
The Mystic’s mastery of mesmerism has enabled him to collect a harem of enthralled women, many of them the daughters of well-to-do families who sent them for treatment to the various insane asylums the villain has run in the past.
He has charmed and dazzled Philadelphia’s intelligentsia with his vast knowledge of religion, history and the sciences. Ravoni becomes a lecturer in Advanced Anatomy and his brilliant young acolytes come to adopt his own macabre playfulness with body parts and the corpses they dissect.
At one point in the story we get a stylish Sympathy for
the Devil Ravoni rant in which he recounts his deeds at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and even America’s Revolution. He also claims he was in Philadelphia when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Especially memorable is a bit where the villain mocks the dead George Washington, Napoleon, Marquis de Lafayette and others for daring to judge him mad.
Our sorcerer loves to reminisce about his centuries-long existence in the same way that makes Goths love vampires so much. Ravoni also waxes philosophical about his encounters with assorted other mystic masters of eternal youth and the way some of the “weaker” ones often commit suicide after wearying of their unnatural life-spans. He’s like a pre-Anne Rice version of an Anne Rice character.
In the end it turns out Ravoni plans to set up his own religion with himself as its God. He claims he will restore mankind to the ancient faith they supposedly had before Judaism, Christianity and Islam “perverted” religion.
THE ROBED SKELETON – The skeletal figure clad in Monk’s robes who sits at the head of the dining table in the Banquet Room of Monk Hall. It often raises its glass and drinks to join in the bawdy and sinister “toasts” during the feasts, but guests are told it’s just an illusion conveyed via marionette strings manipulated by an unseen operator … Or is it?
After all, nightmarish things do transpire in Monk Hall, and once its massive door closes behind you, you might as well be trapped in a far-off country or in Hell itself for all the aid and succor that could reach you. Not even daylight ever penetrates to the Hall’s innards.
DOCTOR MCTORNIQUET – Part villain and part bystander, this doctor provides poisons to some of the novel’s schemers. He also has a bizarre laboratory/ museum of oddities like a preserved black child with two heads.
BYRNEWOOD ARLINGTON – One of the very few “good guys” in the story. And even he isn’t at all “good” until he goes through his character arc in the novel. His sister is targeted for sexual exploitation by one of the Monks of Monk Hall.
LONG-HAIRED BESS, DORA LIVINGSTONE, GUS LORRIMER, COLONEL FITZ-COWLES, MABEL PYNE, MARY ARLINGTON, REVEREND PYNE AND MANY OTHERS – This novel has a cast of characters as large as a Soap Opera. One of the weaknesses of The Monks of Monk Hall is the confusing tableau of plots and counter-plots, infidelities, double identities and macabre Dark Shadowsesque cliff-hangers scattered throughout the novel.
Other supernatural aspects of the story involve induced hallucinations and sightings of Death-Angels around Philadelphia as the tale nears its climax. Even Burke and Hare from England get a shoutout during a scene with Devil-Bug stealing corpses for Ravoni.
Though appropriate for Halloween, The Monks of Monk Hall is set over the course of a few days leading up to Christmas of 1842. Author George Lippard is known to have based this novel partly on sensational revelations from the murder trial of Singleton Mercer in New Jersey.
Lippard’s friendship with Edgar Allan Poe often overshadows the impact of his own writings, but in my opinion the MOST overlooked is The Monks of Monk Hall. It’s not for everyone and if you’re not as obsessive as I am about forcing yourself to read every word of such old works you may just want to skim. Believe me, this story makes even Varney the Vampire seem fast-paced and focused.
I hate to overdo the Twin Peaks comparisons but I can honestly say that reading this novel gave me a vibe similar to the book The Secret History of Twin Peaks. No matter how much is revealed during the course of events in the tale there are still certain mysteries preserved regarding the macabre history of Monk Hall and its members over the decades. +++
FOR A NEGLECTED WEREWOLF NOVEL SET IN 1790s NEW YORK STATE CLICK HERE
FOR ISABELLA OF EGYPT, FEATURING A GOLEM, A MANDRAGORE, A LIVING DEAD MAN, A GYPSY WITCH AND A JEWISH SORCEROR CLICK HERE
FOR MORE HALLOWEEN ITEMS CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/category/halloween-season/
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