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.