The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 3: Freezing the Soul, or A Review of THE MONK by Matthew Lewis

My title for this review comes from an essay by Ann Radcliffe titled “On the Supernatural in Poetry.”  Radcliffe, one of the most prominent gothic novelists, was concerned about where she saw the form going.  Whereas the “terror” Radcliffe used in her novels “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” Radcliffe believed the “horror” she was seeing in newer gothic works at the time “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”  It is generally believed that Radcliffe’s criticism was aimed primarily at Matthew Lewis’ tremendously successful and controversial novel The Monk.  While I could be mistaken, it seems that Radcliffe’s comments mark the first designation of horror as a distinct genre, growing out of the gothicism of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries.  In some ways then, The Monk, with its not explained-away-in the end supernatural elements and brazen use of grisliness could be considered the true start of horror fiction, as opposed to the proto-horror works that preceded it.  How unsurprising, given what would come in the future, that the first major reference to horror as its own genre should be a disapproving one!

It does not appear that Matthew Lewis saw himself as branching off and starting something new.  Lewis was simply trying to write a novel in the style of the gothic craze then sweeping England.  He even expressed profound admiration for one of Radcliffe’s novels.  However, there is no doubt that readers of the day perceived Lewis as having done something quite different.  In fact, many were not pleased with that difference.  While The Monk was a major literary hit, Lewis faced accusations of blasphemy and immorality.  He did have his defenders.  In her introduction to the Oxford edition of the book I read, scholar Emma McEvoy quotes a contemporary of Lewis in the journal The Monthly Mirror who said The Monk was “well-calculated to support the cause of virtue” through its exposure of the hypocritical monk Ambrosio’s overconfidence in his decency.  Intriguingly however, McEvoy, who elsewhere makes several fine points, flicks this defense aside, describing it as “ludicrous.”  I was startled since, after reading The Monk, I had pretty much the same thoughts as that writer in The Monthly Mirror!  Clearly, McEvoy perceived Lewis as doing something VERY new, just as many people at the time did.  She didn’t disapprove but she agreed with the fundamental perception of difference.  While I do agree with this perception of difference, I think it has been somewhat exaggerated.

Before returning to that, I should talk a little about The Monk itself.  First off, it made me want to read more gothic fiction, by Radcliffe and others.  It also made me sad that Lewis himself wrote no further fiction.  Had he done so, The Monk would have been juvenalia since Lewis wrote it when he was only nineteen!  So is it safe to say I liked The Monk as a novel?  Well, let’s say I liked some of the novels in it.  It is almost impossible to call this a single book.  I’ve read novels with sprawling plots before but this creates a whole new definition of ‘loose’ in my mind.  Everything is tied together in the end but, far more than once while reading, I wondered if that was even possible.  If you quantified literal ‘stage time,’ several major characters are really barely present in the narrative.  They do cast longer shadows but the small number of actual appearances is rather jolting.  I’m actually a big advocate of anti-naturalism and playfulness in literature so I’m all for authors going where their imaginations take them, without regard for taste or artificial rules.  Still, The Monk sets new records for the sheer number of things it is.  At various times it was a ghost story, a social comedy, an attack on religious extremism (Lewis’ then conventional anti-Catholicism can become offensive), a boys’ adventure story, a twisted family saga, a syrupy love story, a dramatized form of literary criticism, and a psychological study of criminality.  Lewis writes all of these with skill so I always enjoyed reading the book.  However, even a good writer like Lewis could hardly have hoped to make all of this feel truly unified.  Even as I enjoyed one strand, I often found myself mourning the radically different strand that had just ended.  It was also hard to keep things, especially characters, straight.  After a while, for the sake of my sanity, I just started to take several sections as basically independent.

The glowing exception to this was in everything dealing directly with the evil Ambrosio, the monk of the title.  This character is one of the finest villains I’ve ever read in any novel, horror or otherwise.  Lewis’ sketch of Ambrosio’s character flaws, flaws that will lead him to commit almost unspeakable crimes, is absolutely masterful.  As good as everything else is, whenever Lewis focuses on Ambrosio, The Monk approaches real pantheon status.  I could write a whole separate piece just on the numerous complex aspects of this fascinating character.  The fact that Lewis manages to keep such a despicable figure somewhat pitiful is the true sign of a potentially master novelist.  Again, it is a real shame that Lewis didn’t write any further novels.  It is striking (if hardly surprising) how much more vital Ambrosio and, to a slightly lesser extent, his partner in crime Matilda, are than most of the virtuous characters.  The exceptions to this are the loyal servant Theodore and some of the comic side figures.  Otherwise, the good people, while their adventures are entertaining, come off as cookie cutter figures.  Despite this, the section detailing the sufferings of Agnes is one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.  That sounds like hyperbole but it’s not.  Seriously, if you read this book prepare yourself for that.  It will ruin your day if you have any compassion anywhere in your heart.

That brings me back to my original focus.  By the end of The Monk, cruelty and fanaticism have been exposed and kindness and moderation praised as true virtue and richly rewarded.  While the villains are more fun to read about, there is no suggestion I could find that we should favor them or what they do.  They are riveting but hardly sexy or appealing.  So what were all the angry pointing fingers about?  And where does the modern notion that The Monk is somehow transgressive come from?  Perhaps it’s understandable that, when a work of art goes somewhere uncomfortable or unsettling, insecure people will attack it as wicked.  However, I wonder if those of us who pride ourselves on being more sophisticated fall for the same trick in a subtler way.  Maybe horror’s function in freezing the soul is only dangerous to the kind of false and hollow ‘virtue’ practiced by Ambrosio.  True virtue can be horrified but never conquered.

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 2: A Review of SOUTHERN GOTHIC: NEW TALES OF THE SOUTH

NOTE: I feel I should make a full disclosure about this review.  I had some involvement with this book.  The publisher is a good friend and colleague.  He asked me to read the manuscript for errors and I am credited in the book as line editor.  However, I had no editorial control and received no compensation whatsoever.  I think my review is objective but I wanted to be honest.

I recall a reader online critiquing some of the horror stories of Ambrose Bierce.  This person acknowledged Bierce’s skill but felt his stories were hindered by the fact that most of them are set in the western United States.  The reader felt the west was simply not creepy enough.  I don’t entirely agree but it did remind me of some things I’ve felt while reading Bierce.  For some reason, California gothic simply doesn’t seem to work as well as New York gothic or, especially, New England gothic.  However, the American south, while very different from a creaky old colonial mansion in Boston, has its own special brand of creepy.  This anthology showcases that brand at its finest.

One of the great things about this collection is that it doesn’t yield to regional stereotypes.  Southern readers who expect some sort of reduction of their area as filled with backwards rednecks will be pleasantly surprised.  In fact, one of my favorites, “Them Riders” by Eryk Pruitt, includes a delicious twist on the idea of the spirit of the south as intractably racist.  Similarly, Caitlin Cauley’s tremendously disturbing “Canaan” does not come off as a tasteless movie of the week despite its explosive look at sexuality.  Instead, it is a tragic tale of weak human beings, ruled by stifling conventions, who ultimately destroy each other as they grasp for help.

Some of the stories do wallow a bit too much in seamy atmosphere.  There are some pieces that kind of blend together.  For the most part however, the authors go in all sorts of fresh and surprising directions.  Highlights other than the previously mentioned stories include Zachary Honey’s nasty shocker “Her Prince Charming,” a highly original take on the ghost story titled “Long Gone Girls” by Rose Yndigoyen, and the beautiful, achingly sad “A Sleeping Place” by A.A. Garrison.  There are many other gems to find but I want to close by mentioning my favorite in this collection, Shane K. Bernard’s “The Phrenologist.”  I DEFINITELY will not give anything away but let me simply say I have rarely read a short story so chilling, full of wisdom, and wickedly funny.  However, Bernard’s piece is the best of a truly excellent bunch.

The Cup of the Ptolemies, Part 1: A Review of ROSEMARY’S BABY by Ira Levin

“Yet who shall declare the dark theme a positive handicap?  Radiant with beauty, the Cup of the Ptolemies was carven of onyx.”  Those are the last lines of H. P. Lovecraft’s SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE, in my opinion one of the finest critical works ever written about the horror genre.  I love horror.  Maybe a better way to put it would be I absolutely adore it, with an almost silly, babbling affection.  It is my favorite genre and this is the first in an ongoing series of horror reviews.  Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors and, while I don’t always agree with his critical judgements, I wanted to honor him by using his words as the title for this series. 

When I first read this book, I had a lot of fun with it but I didn’t take it very seriously.  I STILL don’t think it’s really supposed to be taken seriously but, crucially, I no longer believe, as I once did, that this lack of seriousness keeps it from being a masterpiece.  A little while after reading Rosemary’s Baby I read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.  “Ah,” I thought at the time, “here is a really serious horror novel!”  To my mind, Blatty’s book actually seemed concerned with something beyond genre trappings.  While it certainly delivered thrills, it also tried to be about deeper themes and motivations whereas Levin’s novel was just gleeful fun.  However, even as I said this to myself, I had a nagging feeling at the back of my mind.  That nag grew naggier when I finished Blatty’s novel.  What was nagging me was that I just didn’t enjoy The Exorcist at all while I had loved Rosemary’s Baby.  For a while, I tried to convince myself I was just being foolish.  Eventually however, I gave up.  I don’t even own a copy of The Exorcist anymore while Rosemary’s Baby is one of the books that doesn’t leave my shelf.

In a 2010 introduction to a new edition of this novel, the great mystery editor Otto Penzler mentioned something that helped me realize why I had had this series of reactions.  Levin, according to Penzler, was a secular Jew.  The Christian worldview of Rosemary’s Baby is not one the author believed in.  In fact, he didn’t believe in any religious worldview.  Penzler even claimed that Levin hoped his novel might help dispel some of the suspicions about Satan and witchcraft that are the underpinnings of his story.  What with the Satanism genre reinvigorated by Levin’s book and numerous people convinced things someone told them about from a movie are true, I’d say it didn’t quite work out that way.  Still, Levin’s disbelief is what makes his novel so wonderful.  While Rosemary’s Baby completely delivers jump scares, eerie atmosphere, diabolical villains, and a multi-shock ending, none of these would work nearly so well were it not for the fact that Levin thought they were utterly absurd.  Unlike Blatty, Levin never ruminates about faith and compassion.  No, he just leaps cheerfully into the world of ridiculous goings on and bids us join him, screeching at the creepy moments but never losing the snarky smile on our faces.  This is one of the few things mostly missing from the otherwise top-notch film adaptation.  It would be hard to get Levin’s authorial smirking into a dramatization so I don’t hold it against the filmmakers.  Actually, it’s hard to put my finger on it even in the book.  I only know I felt it right from the start, even if I was only later able to describe it accurately.

All this makes me wonder about the very purpose of the horror genre.  To frighten audiences would be the standard justification.  After thinking about Rosemary’s Baby, I wonder if it is something a little more significant, at least in the best cases.  Even the most gut-churning horror tends to expect the audience to know none of it is real.  Perhaps the true purpose of the very best horror, and I would include Rosemary’s Baby, is to make us think, just a little bit, about what we’ve been taught to be afraid of.  When we do, perhaps we’ll understand it better.  And then, just maybe, we might actually start laughing.

AH, WILDERNESS! by Eugene O’Neill

As in a previous O’Neill review, I find myself thinking of Robert Brustein’s classic work of criticism The Theatre of Revolt.  Brustein sees this play as a crucial turning point for O’Neill, when he began to reassess the “messianic” style he had been writing in and look to a subtler, more naturalistic approach.  It’s hard to disagree with Brustein on this point.  It was not long after writing Ah, Wilderness! that O’Neill started work on his final sequence of plays.  Those plays, in my opinion, finally made him the master dramatist he had previously only been impersonating.  However, Brustein is not particularly kind to Ah, Wilderness! itself.  While he does not attack O’Neill’s only (official) comedy, he views it as a slight work, more important as a stepping stone than as its own work of art.  While Ah, Wilderness! is indeed a stepping stone, I happen to feel it is at least a near great play, in and of itself.

Brustein’s lack of respect is probably related to the fact that Ah, Wilderness! is an unambiguous comedy.  While we all pretend otherwise, the immense value of the comic continues to go unregarded in numerous circles.  There is a common feeling that a comedy cannot possibly be truly deep or meaningful.  To me, this makes as much sense as pretending that joy and laughter are unimportant parts of life.  Why shouldn’t art, in addition to examining what makes too much of life agonizing, also explore the things that make us happy and want to slog on despite our pain?  Ah, Wilderness! is a masterfully wrought comedy.  To be sure, as was noted by the great critic and O’Neill friend Brooks Atkinson, it is comic more in general tone than in any lines or situations.  That being said, there are some definite moments where readers (and audiences) will laugh warmly and hard.  One line, in the remarkable final scene, should bring any house down if handled well by the production.  Throughout the play, O’Neill’s laughter is always kind and sympathetic, even when it carries sharp perceptions about foolishness and immaturity.  O’Neill was starting to develop the almost overwhelming sympathy for the flaws of human beings that would inform his final masterpieces.

That brings me back to the “stepping stone” point.  While Ah, Wilderness! is definitely a crucial move away from grand ambition, I think it also demonstrates O’Neill’s new immersion in dramatic structure, big or small.  It isn’t that O’Neill abandons his themes.  He simply learned that, by wedding them to a sound literary and theatrical foundation, he could better explore and communicate them.  This is still a discovery that can be hard for authors to make.  For all his attempts to move in earlier, larger-scale plays, it is astonishing how a quiet piece like this, where the goal was primarily to make the audience laugh, can be so much more effective in capturing the heart.  Parts of the final scene are so beautifully written, so pulsing with O’Neill’s new-found control over his language and technique, it is hard to think of them without going misty!  O’Neill seems to be reveling in his exciting new power to make his characters speak like real people and matter to others.  While it never stops being simply entertaining, the final scene of Ah, Wilderness! is strangely breathtaking in some ways.

Perhaps O’Neill, under other circumstances, might have written other comedies.  Sadly, he had darker things to explore.  Many have noted that Ah, Wilderness! was, in many ways, an attempt to dream a joyous youth he never really had.  Anyone passingly familiar with O’Neill will know well that his sympathy for human suffering was not something he was remotely capable of carrying into much of his personal life.  Still, Ah, Wilderness! shows us the start of O’Neill’s attempt to intricately work out in art what he could not handle in his own life.  In my view, the attempt was ultimately a triumphant one, a view I feel can be detected in the uncanny peace that hangs over his last tragedies.  Eugene O’Neill the man was probably broken beyond repair by the time he wrote Ah, Wilderness!  However, this play, and those that followed, would prove that broken man to be a true artistic hero.