Review: Vathek by William Beckford

This is my first book for the RIP V challenge and one of the strangest novels I have ever read! It’s the story of Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, and his temptation by a supernatural being (known as ‘the Giaour’), who promises to bestow on him the treasures and talismans of the ‘palace of subterranean fire’. Encouraged by his ambitious mother, the sorceress Carathis, Vathek embarks on a journey through exotic landscapes and begins a descent into hell.

Although William Beckford was English, Vathek was originally written in French and translated into English by Reverend Samuel Henley in 1786. The best way I can describe Vathek is that it’s a sort of dark, twisted fairy tale reminiscent of The Arabian Nights. Beckford mixes eastern mythology and Islamic culture with elements of the gothic novel (ghouls, spirits, graveyards, an atmosphere of evil) and throws in some magic, fantasy and romance for good measure. There are some long and poetic descriptive passages which become quite surreal and dreamlike in places.

Bababalouk had pitched the tents, and closed up the extremities of the valley with magnificent screens of India cloth, which were guarded by Ethiopian slaves with their drawn sabres; to preserve the verdure of this beautiful enclosure in its natural freshness, the white eunuchs went continually round it with their red water-vessels. The waving of fans was heard near the imperial pavilion, where, by the voluptuous light that glowed through the muslins, the Caliph enjoyed at full view all the attractions of Nouronihar.

The book is short in length but it’s not a quick, easy read. The entire story is told in one big chunk, rather than being broken into chapters, which made it seem quite daunting. If it had been any longer I probably wouldn’t have finished it because although the beginning and the ending were great, I started to lose interest during the middle section.

The characters are two-dimensional and impossible to like. At the beginning of the book, Vathek is popular with his subjects as he is fond of the pleasures of life and rarely becomes angry (although when he does lose his temper, one of his eyes becomes ‘so terrible that no person could bear to behold it, and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired’). After the Giaour arrives in his kingdom and begins to tempt him with stories of the palace of subterranean fire, however, Vathek becomes a cruel and greedy ruler. One of the conditions the Giaour imposes on him in return for admitting him into the subterranean palace is that he must renounce Islam and perform a series of atrocious crimes. Vathek never shows any remorse for his actions and I found him completely undeserving of any sympathy from the first page of this book to the last. His mother, Carathis, is even worse…

“…by my formidable art the clouds shall sleet hailstones in the faces of the assailants, and shafts of red-hot iron on their heads; I will spring mines of serpents and torpedos from beneath them, and we shall soon see the stand they will make against such an explosion!”

Vathek is completely bizarre and probably a book that you’ll either love or hate. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in the origins of gothic literature, fantasy or horror – and it apparently influenced both Byron and H.P. Lovecraft, among others. If you don’t take this book too seriously, it’s quite entertaining.

15 thoughts on “Review: Vathek by William Beckford

    • Helen says:

      My copy of this novel is actually part of an anthology called “Four Gothic Novels”. It includes Vathek, The Castle of Otranto, The Monk and Frankenstein all in one volume. I would probably never have heard of Vathek either if it hadn’t been part of this collection!

  1. Caroline says:

    I read this years ago but do not remember it very well. Nice to see it reviewed. I think I read it for historical reasons as it was a precursor. My choices for the R.I.P. are equally forgotten classics. E.T.A Hoffmann whose short story The Sandman I will reread has mentioned The monk in one of his novels.

    • Helen says:

      I found it very interesting from a historical point of view, as it apparently influenced so many later works.

      I’ve never heard of The Sandman – I’ll have to look for that one!

  2. Birdie says:

    It sounds (stylistically) quite a bit like The Castle of Otranto, which is fun mostly because it works like a checklist of all the conventions of a gothic novel (and also fun for the backstory about the author. If your edition of Otranto doesn’t have Walpole’s original preface–and preferably Scott’s introduction–hold out for one that does).
    Sorry, that was totally off topic. Sadly that’s the way my brain works.

    And since I seem to be confessing random things, I first read this Encouraged by his ambitious mother, the sorceress Carathis as “his amphibious mother”. *snort* Can you tell I’ve been preparing a lecture on Beowulf?

    Thanks so much for the review!

    • Helen says:

      I read The Castle of Otranto earlier this year and yes, it’s quite similar to Vathek. The Castle of Otranto has more gothic elements though, whereas I would describe Vathek as more of a dark fantasy. I’m laughing at your “amphibious mother” comment! 🙂

  3. chasing bawa says:

    I read this years ago when I was going through my gothic literature phase but I don’t remember much of the story, so your post was a timely reminder:) If you are used to reading modern gothic literature it’s probably harder to get back to reading the classics. However, I really enjoyed reading Dracula and Frankenstein which were very thrilling!

    • Helen says:

      I think I’m going through a gothic literature phase now! I’ve just finished reading The Monk and am hoping to read both Dracula and Frankenstein before Halloween!

  4. Karl A. Durston says:

    I picked up a copy of three gothic novels by Dover Press, “Otranto”, “Vathek” and “The Vampyre” by Polidori, they are fun in their own quaint way, but,I actually found the author’s lives more interesting than their books,

    • Helen says:

      Yes, all three of those authors seemed to lead interesting lives! I read The Vampyre a few years ago and remember being fascinated by the background behind it but not very impressed by the story itself.

  5. Michael Sams says:

    The final paragraph of the above review is a fair judgement:

    Vathek is completely bizarre and probably a book that you’ll either love or hate. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in the origins of gothic literature, fantasy or horror – and it apparently influenced both Byron and H.P. Lovecraft, among others. If you don’t take this book too seriously, it’s quite entertaining.

    This Gothic tale is the 18th century equivalent of pulp fiction. It is exasperatingly bad and the clumsiness of the translation only adds to the pain.

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