Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog may remember the obscure horror stories I review during Halloween Month each year. I’ve been asked if I’ll ever review any of the better known, big names in Gothic Horror, so here we go.
THE MONK (1796) – Written by Matthew G. Lewis. Though The Monk was preceded by other works of Gothic Horror like The Castle of Otranto (1764) and The Necromancer (1794), Lewis’ novel cranked up the supernatural elements a great deal. It also painted the Catholic clergy in extremely unflattering terms, at least in the initial edition.
After the public outcry over the extreme horror and lascivious conduct of clergy members in the first edition, Lewis softened up the content in future editions. The title character, Ambrosio, breaks his vows by committing murder, rape and sex with a consenting partner, before plumbing new depths. The Prioress, Mother Saint Agatha, is sadistically violent to those in her power, even torturing the heroine Agnes.
Some of the supernatural characters and elements:
MATILDA is a witch who infiltrated Ambrosio’s monastery disguised as a boy. After revealing that she is a woman she not only tempts him into intercourse in violation of his vows, but begins using her witchcraft to assist Ambrosio’s further misdeeds, including rape and murder.
THE BLEEDING NUN is the ghost of a one-time nun who gave in to temptation and ultimately became a prostitute and a murderer. Ever since her death, her ghost has been haunting the Castle of Lindenberg. The novel’s romantic leads, Raymond and Agnes, assume that tales of the ghost are mere superstition and Agnes plans to escape imprisonment in the castle by dressing as the Bleeding Nun and fleeing with Raymond in his carriage at Midnight.
In the event, the real ghost of the Bleeding Nun enters Raymond’s carriage at Midnight and by the time he realizes the danger, the Bleeding Nun has attached herself to Raymond, pursuing him and haunting him everywhere he goes.
THE WANDERING JEW is presented in a way unique to The Monk. This depiction of the character paints him as a man who combats the forces of Hell during his tormented wanderings and has a burning crucifix on his forehead. The Wandering Jew successfully exorcises Raymond of the Bleeding Nun’s ghostly presence.
The main villain of the novel, the monk Ambrosio, sees the ghost of one of his murder victims at one point. The supernatural elements of this tale reach their zenith when Lucifer himself visits Ambrosio in his cell after his crimes are exposed to the Inquisition.
SPOILERS: Lucifer gets Ambrosio to sell him his soul in exchange for freeing him from the Inquisition’s torturers but, naturally, uses a loophole in the agreement to double-cross him. He flies Ambrosio high into the air and drops him to the ground. The monk spends six agonizing days dying and then passes into Hell for eternity.
The sadistic Prioress gets hers, too, dying at the hands of a mob infuriated by the revelation that she has been imprisoning and torturing young nuns. The romantic leads of the tale get a happy ending after enduring so many obstacles thrown in their way by Ambrosio and the Prioress.
THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO (1764) – Written by Horace Walpole. This is largely considered the first true work of Gothic Horror.
Manfred, lord of the haunted Castle of Otranto, is trying to marry his sickly son Conrad to the Princess Isabella. Conrad is killed in a nightmarish supernatural accident before the wedding ceremony, panicking Manfred, who does not want the castle to pass on to any other family.
Feeling pressed for time because of an old curse/ prophecy foretelling his loss of the castle, the villain Manfred forces his long-suffering wife, Hippolita, into a divorce, humiliating her by blaming her for Conrad’s sickliness and for never giving birth to another, healthier son. Manfred then tries to marry Princess Isabella himself.
The princess flees to a church for sanctuary with the help of Theodore, a seeming peasant. As the story progresses, both Princess Isabella and Manfred’s daughter Matilda fall in love with Theodore, who defends both of them at different times.
Theodore at one point learns he is really the son of Friar Jerome, the clergyman who grants Manfred his divorce from Hippolita but goes on to offer sanctuary to the fugitive Isabella. When Theodore is imprisoned by Manfred for helping Isabella flee from the impending forced marriage, he is freed by Matilda and then, in turn, he frees Isabella.
Isabella’s father Frederic at last arrives with his knights to save Princess Isabella and, desiring the Castle of Otranto for himself, plans to marry Manfred’s daughter Matilda. Amid omens like ghosts walking the halls of the castle and figures in portraits leaving their frames to wander about, Frederic is finally frightened into not marrying Matilda by the apparition of a walking skeleton.
SPOILERS: Frederic’s withdrawal from his plans to marry Matilda means that his offer to wed his daughter Isabella to Manfred is also withdrawn. The furious Manfred catches Theodore with a woman that he assumes is Isabella and stabs her to death, only for the woman to turn out to be his own daughter Matilda.
Matilda’s death sets in motion revelations culminating in the discovery that Theodore is the TRUE inheritor of the Castle of Otranto. The defeated Manfred resigns himself to relinquishing the castle to Theodore and taking Holy Orders, like he forced upon his ex-wife Hippolita. A large ghost then materializes, declares the curse/ prophecy to have been fulfilled and, after reducing part of the castle to ruins, fades away.
Isabella and Theodore plan to marry even though he loved Matilda more. The melancholy couple have a certain bond by way of the gloomy events they’ve just lived through and become the new lord and lady of the ravaged Castle of Otranto.
50 responses to “TWO EARLY GOTHIC HORROR NOVELS”
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Thank you, sir!
They both sound fantastic. I have really started to enjoy horror again recently. I will add the second story to my TBR list, it sounds interesting. Great review and thanks for sharing your wisdom once again.
Thanks for such kind words! I love sharing out of the way items like this!