William Beckford’s Vathek

I’ve been working my way through a number of weird fiction tales that weird fiction writer and enthusiast H.P. Lovecraft was fond of.  Vathek, by William Beckford (1760-1844), is the type of story I find nearly irresistible: a proud, arrogant Caliph embarks upon a quest for power and wisdom which leads to unspeakable acts and, ultimately, damnation:


H.P. Lovecraft thought very highly of Beckford’s work, and included a lengthy discussion of it in his celebrated essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927):

Meanwhile other hands had not been idle, so that above the dreary plethora of trash like Marquis von Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796), Mrs. Roche’s Children of the Abbey (1798), Mrs. Dacre’s Zofloya; or, the Moor (1806), and the poet Shelley’s schoolboy effusions Zastro (1810) and St. Irvine (1811) (both imitations of Zofloya) there arose many memorable weird works both in English and German. Classic in merit, and markedly different from its fellows because of its foundation in the Oriental tale rather than the Walpolesque Gothic novel, is the celebrated History of the Caliph Vathek by the wealthy dilettante William Beckford, first written in the French language but published in an English translation before the appearance of the original. Eastern tales, introduced to European literature early in the eighteenth century through Galland’s French translation of the inexhaustibly opulent Arabian Nights, had become a reigning fashion; being used both for allegory and for amusement. The sly humour which only the Eastern mind knows how to mix with weirdness had captivated a sophisticated generation, till Bagdad and Damascus names became as freely strewn through popular literature as dashing Italian and Spanish ones were soon to be. Beckford, well read in Eastern romance, caught the atmosphere with unusual receptivity; and in his fantastic volume reflected very potently the haughty luxury, sly disillusion, bland cruelty, urbane treachery, and shadowy spectral horror of the Saracen spirit. His seasoning of the ridiculous seldom mars the force of his sinister theme, and the tale marches onward with a phantasmagoric pomp in which the laughter is that of skeletons feasting under arabesque domes. Vathek is a tale of the grandson of the Caliph Haroun, who, tormented by that ambition for super-terrestrial power, pleasure and learning which animates the average Gothic villain or Byronic hero (essentially cognate types), is lured by an evil genius to seek the subterranean throne of the mighty and fabulous pre-Adamite sultans in the fiery halls of Eblis, the Mahometan Devil. The descriptions of Vathek’s palaces and diversions, of his scheming soweress-mother Carathis and her witch-tower with the fifty one-eyed negresses, of his pilgrimage to the haunted ruins of Istakhar (Persepolis) and of the impish bride Nouronihar whom he treacherously acquired on the way, of Istakhar’s primordial towers and terraces in the burning moonlight of the waste, and of the terrible Cyclopean halls of Eblis, where, lured by glittering promises, each victim is compelled to wander in anguish for ever, his right hand upon his blazingly ignited and eternally burning heart, are triumphs of weird colouring which raise the book to a permaneat place in English letters. No less notable are the three Episodes of Vathek, intended for insertion in the tale as narratives of Vathek’s fellow-victims in Eblis’ infernal halls, which remained unpublished throughout the author’s lifetime and were discovered as recently as 1909 by the scholar Lewis Melville whilst collecting material for his Life and Letters of William Beckford. Beckford, however, lacks the essential mysticism which marks the acutest form of the weird; so that his tales have a certain knowing Latin hardness and clearness preclusive of sheer panic fright.

What did I think about it?

The Arabian Nights left such a mark on Western literature that homages to it are immediately recognizable, even without the Arabian trappings: wealthy and egotistical noble is humbled and gains wisdom, often after horrific acts.  For instance, when UbiSoft revived the long-dormant Prince of Persia series in 2003 with a trilogy starting with The Sands of Time, the prince was imagined as an arrognant youth whose flaws nearly doom him and his entire kingdom.

Beckford follows this same broad theme, though the Caliph Vathek is far less sympathetic than Shahryar or the Prince of Persia — and Shahryar killed three thousand wives before Scheherazade!

The tale opens with a description of the greatness of Vathek, and his works.  He has expanded upon his father’s palace and built five others to match it, each one devoted solely to the delight of one of the senses.  His greatest flaw at the beginning of the story is one which we should all aspire to, to some extent:

He had studied so much for his amusement in the life-time of his father, as to acquire a great deal of knowledge, though not a sufficiency to satisfy himself; for he wished to know every thing; even sciences that did not exist.

This quest for knowledge is Vathek’s fatal flaw, as he is willing to do pretty much anything to gain more.  His restless existence is interrupted by a visit from a foul stranger later named the Giaour.  Giaour demonstrates to Vathek, and sells to him, numerous wondrous devices:

There were slippers, which, by spontaneous springs, enabled the feet to walk; knives, that cut without motion of the hand; sabres, that dealt the blow at the person they were wished to strike; and the whole enriched with gems, that were hitherto unknown.

Vathek asks the stranger questions about his origins and the provenance of his wares, but he is answered only with laughter.  The Caliph imprisons Giaour, but the monster easily and violently escapes and vanishes.  Vathek is haunted by the loss of the stranger and his hidden source of knowledge, and seeks him out throughout the kingdom.  He is goaded on in this search by his mother, Carathis, a witch who performs horrific experiments in her isolated tower of the palace.

The Giaour presents himself again to Vathek, and offers Vathek access to his Palace of Subterranean Fire (none too subtle, that) and all its treasures, if he renounces Mahomet and offers a horrific and massive sacrifice of the blood of his own subjects.

The novel follows Vathek’s increasingly horrific (and sometimes comical) attempts to earn a place in the fire, and his incidental destruction of his kingdom, his subjects, and his own soul.

I enjoyed Vathek immensely; there isn’t much else I can add about it that Lovecraft didn’t already cover!  The Episodes of Vathek which he mentioned are available to read on horrormasters.com, for those who need more of a Beckford “Vathek fix”.  Beckford did a masterful job of capturing not only the tone of the Arabian Nights but a sense of cosmic horror that was rare in that era of Gothic literature.

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3 Responses to William Beckford’s Vathek

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    I knew the name Vathek sounded familiar, but it took me a while to recall where I had read a discussion of the novel before. Jorge Luis Borges — himself a Lovecraft fan, as it happens — had this to say about it:

    Saintsbury and Andrew Lang claim or suggest that the invention of the Palace of Subterranean Fire is Beckford’s greatest achievement. I would maintain that it is the first truly atrocious Hell in literature. I will venture this paradox: the most famous literary Avernus, the dolente regno of the Divine Comedy, is not an atrocious place; it is a place where atrocious things happen. […] Dante’s Hell magnifies the notion of a jail; Beckford’s, the tunnels of a nightmare.


    He wrote it in French; Henley translated it into English in 1785. The original is unfaithful to the translation; Saintsbury observes that eighteenth-century French is less suitable than English for communicating the “undefined horrors” (the phrase is Beckford’s) of this unusual story.

    This from a 1943 essay reprinted on pp. 236–39 of Selected Non-Fictions (1999).

  2. Blake: Thanks for the interesting info! I like the statement that “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

  3. Blake Stacey says:

    Me too! To my eye, it’s quintessential Borges.

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