Brian Keene’s History of Horror Fiction, Chapter Eight: The Monk and 1796 Cancel Culture

In our last column, we discussed Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto—a novel written in 1764 that merged supernatural situations with realistic characters in a natural setting. I mentioned that while it was inarguably the world’s first supernatural horror novel, the marketing category of Horror wasn’t invented until the Eighties, so it was instead categorized as a “Gothic.” 

Soon after, the Gothic literary genre took the world by storm. Between 1776 and 1820, hundreds of Gothic horror novels were published. We would have to devote several chapters of this series to examining them all in detail, so instead, I’ll focus on some of the more notable contributions. Worthy of mention is The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve (1778), Vathek by William Beckford (1786), The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794), The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest by Peter Teuthoid (1794), The Midnight Bell by Francis Lathom (1798), The Animated Skeleton by Anonymous (1798), The Witch of Ravensworth by George Brewer (1807), The Demon of Sicily by Edward Montague (1807), and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817).

As I pointed out in our last column, Walpole’s novel is one of two that has inspired much that has come since, beginning with Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Edgar Allan Poe (all of whom we’ll be getting to soon).

The other novel that serves as the genre’s ancestral blueprint is The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis.

Up until the publication of The Monk in March of 1796, the Gothics mostly followed Walpole’s formula. The books usually featured a mystery or threat to the main character, an evil villain threatening the virtue of a virginal female, supernatural elements such as a ghost or an ancestral curse, and secret passages in crumbling mansions or castles. That template carried over into the next century, as evidenced by the bulk of the stories published in the pulps during the 1930s.

But with The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis took Walpole’s formula, as well as the influence of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and ran them through a meat grinder. The result was the most shocking novel of the century. If The Castle of Otranto was the world’s first horror novel, then The Monk was the world’s first extreme horror novel. As author J.F. Gonzalez once said, “In some ways, The Monk can be seen as the entire hardcore oeuvre of Edward Lee and Wrath James White of 1796. It was certainly hardcore for its time, and as a result it was banned and suppressed in later editions.” 

All of the standard Gothic trappings are present—the secret passageways and crumbling estates and maidens in peril. But Lewis turns these things on their head, drenching the novel in buckets of sadism, satanism, and supernatural events that aren’t explained away by the book’s end. The story consists of two main intermingled plots. The one I want to focus on for our purposes is that of the main protagonist, Ambrosio. He is a respectable and devout clergyman who ends up being seduced by a demon. Under this supernatural influence, Ambrosio kills his mother and rapes his sister on a bed of rotting corpses. (And that’s not even the most shocking rape scene in the book, which is reserved for the equally shocking brutalization of a nun).  

Lewis wrote The Monk at age twenty. The first edition was published anonymously, with only his initials in the preface. The novel became a best-seller for its time, and Lewis then added his name as the author for the second edition (published in October of 1796). But with that came notoriety and 1700s cancel culture. Some critics (including the esteemed Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and notable public figures savaged the book, taking issues with its anti-Catholic and sexual themes, as well as the depravity depicted. But not content to comment on the work itself, they criticized the author as well, accusing him of immorality and even plagiarism. The pressure weighed heavily on young Lewis and was a great source of distress for his  entire family. In 1798, he wrote an apologetic letter to his father, and promised to make reparations. 

With the publication of The Monk’s fourth printing, Lewis took it upon himself to completely revise the novel, expunging every controversial scene and changing any objectionable word. For example, Ambrosio, who was described as a “ravisher” in the first three printings, is now an “intruder” or “betrayer.” His “lust” is changed to “desire,” and his sexual deviancies, having been previously described as him “indulging in excesses” in the previous printings, are now described as Ambrosio “committing an error.” He also wrote an apology which served as a new preface for the fourth edition, stating in part:

I solemnly declare, that when I published the work I had no idea that its publication could be prejudicial; if I was wrong, the error proceeded from my judgment, not from my intention. Without entering into the merits of the advice which it proposes to convey, or attempting to defend (what I now condemn myself) the language and manner in which that advice was delivered, I solemnly declare, that in writing the passage which regards the Bible (consisting of a single page, and the only passage which I ever wrote on the subject) I had not the most distant intention to bring the sacred Writings into contempt, and that, had I suspected it of producing such an effect, I should not have written the paragraph.

Author Matthew Gregor Lewis

Lewis went on to have a good life, and had many adventures and experiences, including spending the summer of 1816 with Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelly in Geneva, where the three of them recounted ghost stories to each other. But the controversy caused by The Monk never quite left him, and the attacks on his character—not on the work but on the author himself—never stopped. Indeed, after his death, one posthumous criticism (published in The Courier) stated:

He devoted the first fruits of his mind to the propagation of evil, and the whole long harvest was burnt up … There is a moral in the life of this man … He was a reckless defiler of the public mind; a profligate, he cared not how many were to be undone when he drew back the curtain of his profligacy; he had infected his reason with the insolent belief that the power to corrupt made the right, and that conscience might be laughed, so long as he could evade law. The Monk was an eloquent evil; but the man who compounded it knew in his soul that he was compounding poison for the multitude, and in that knowledge he sent it into the world.

Sadly, Lewis was not the only horror author to suffer personal attacks for their work. It’s a cautionary tale that we see play out again and again throughout this trip through time. The names and venues and delivery methods may change, but there will always be those who cannot differentiate between the author and their work.

Despite this. Lewis’s contributions to the genre cannot be overstated. Nor can the influence of The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Castle of Otranto. The former went on to inspire film and literary adaptations, as well as an opera and a Batman graphic novel. And the three, as the linchpins of the Gothic genre, went on to inspire countless novels. As I said earlier, from 1800 to 1820, hundreds of similar books were published. Often, they were written by sub-standard authors looking to cash in on the craze. They were often printed on cheap paper and featured lurid covers. Costing one shilling, they became known as “shilling shockers.” 

The plots, the production, the attacks on the authors, and even those lurid covers are things that we will see echoed again and again as we move forward through time, beginning with our next stop—1812 and the Brothers Grimm.  

Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

1 thought on “Brian Keene’s History of Horror Fiction, Chapter Eight: The Monk and 1796 Cancel Culture”

  1. Well done, as always. I actually count three operas inspired by The Monk; Edward Loder’s Raymond & Agnes (1855), Gounod’s La Nonne Sanglante (The Bloody Nun) of 1854 and Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz, 1838. I’ve found an audio recording of the Loder online (in addition to a couple on YouTube), but the other two have thus far escaped me. There is a DVD available of the Donizetti, a performance at the Opera Comique of Paris from just a couple of years back, that I’m considering purchasing. There are also several films, none of which appear to be available on YouTube, including a 1990 version starring the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann.

    Looking forward to what you unveil about my favorite German brothers. I read the Märchen in the original language in college, back when my German was much less rusty than it is now. 🙂

Leave a Reply