First made available in English in 1786, William Beckford's "Vathek" is one of the early examples of Gothic fiction, one which also capitalized on the newfound fascination with Orientalism, thanks to the recent translation of The Arabian Nights into English. My own copy is contained in a three-book set alongside Horace Wadpole's The Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, three companion pieces that display the characteristics of the Gothic genre in its early stages. Like Wadpole, Beckford's story was first presented to the public as a faux-translation of a much older manuscript that had been found in an exotic country. In this case, "Vathek" distinguishes itself from its fellows through Beckford's capitalization of Orientalism, in exploiting exotic fantasies of Eastern culture, religion and myths, alongside the usual Gothic trappings of ghosts, bloodshed, highly-strung emotions, and the attempt to evoke terror in its reader.
Yet in many ways, "Vathek" also resembles a fairytale, or perhaps one of those stories you were told as a child that were designed to frighten you into good behaviour. The story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides, is that of a fall from grace; a morality play about how pride, hubris and lust for knowledge beyond one's right to possess will inevitably lead to an individual's damnation.
The young Vathek is a ruler insatiably thirsty for knowledge, and not only partakes in various debates with scholars, but has built a tower (reminiscent of the tower of Babel) in order to study astrology. He is joined in this quest by his mother Princess Carathis, who has taught her boy everything he knows. One day Vathek acquires a pair of beautiful sabers engraved with indecipherable letters that, when translated, read: "We were made where everything is well made; we are the least of the wonders of a place where all is wonderful and deserving, the sight of the first potentate on earth."
The following day however, the words have changed into the cautionary message: "Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant, and to undertake that which surpasses his power". Naturally, Vathek is intrigued, the more so by the words and actions of the mysterious man who bought the swords to him in the first place, and will not be hindered in his ambition of tracking down the sabers' origins.
In order to obtain a key that is promised to lead him to "the talismans that rule the world"; (along with other infernal powers, secrets and treasures) Vathek commits several heinous crimes before setting off on a pilgrimage to the region of Istakhar, the seat of Eblis (or Iblis), an incarnation of the Islamic devil. Encouraged by his mother and yet given ample second-chances by heavenly forces, Vathek eventually gains a companion in his quest: a beautiful princess called Nouronihar, the daughter of an Emir, whose role in the narrative could function as either his salvation or damnation.
Told in third person by an omnipresent narrator that sometimes intrudes in order to shift the scene or discuss morality, "Vathek" has no chapter breaks, but is one complete manuscript. According to the author, it was penned in no less than three days, and there is definitely the sense that Beckford made it up as he went along: Carathis initially seems like a wise and benevolent monarch, until the narrator casually mentions that she's in league with demonic forces. In the same vein, the book is almost at a close when we are told that Vathek has a never-before-mentioned brother.
Likewise, it is filled with odd quirks, like the man who tucks himself up and is kicked like a football throughout the city, or the plan to remove a prince and princess from danger by hiding them in a valley and trying to convince them that they've died and are in purgatory. Also, there are dwarfs that are pinched to death. Really.
But there is a beautiful build-up of atmosphere here; from the five palaces of the caliph, each one pertaining to one of the sensory pleasures, to the protagonist's final destination, the vast subterranean caverns of marble "strewn over with gold dust and saffron." Populated by a cast of eunuchs, jinn, afrits, caliphs, devils, spirits and those pinch-fearing dwarfs, Beckford's imagination is on full-assault here, including treats such as damned souls tortured by their perpetually burning hearts, angels appearing as shepherd boys playing soul-rending flute music, the caliph's "evil eye" that cause weaker men to die of fright, and the phenomenon of a strange man-child character who is swept away from the evils of the world in order to dwell happily...in a nest.
By today's jaded standards, much of what is written here may seem rather tame, but can't you just imagine the original 18th century target audience reacting to this impassioned speech:
"Would you surrender this divine beauty to a husband more womanish than herself? And can you imagine that I will suffer her charms to decay in hands so inefficient and nerveless? No! She is destined to live out her life within my embraces: such is my will, retire, and disturb not the nights I devote to the worship of her charms."
Altogether, this is certainly a very odd book, though also a most intriguing one. There's no real way of gauging how someone else will react to it, but if you're an enthusiast of Gothic literature, a literary historian tracking the popularity of exoticism, a parent out for something to scare your children with, or a reader just hankering for a story that's both familiar and yet really, *really* different, try "Vathek."