William Beckford
Vathek Cover



Vathek (1786) is a very strange book. The author, William Beckford, claims that he wrote it very quickly in two or three days. (The stories vary on this point). I think maybe he should have taken more time. There's very little in the way of plot or character development. However, there is lots of description: descriptions of the luxury and despotism of Vathek, the Caliph.

Even though Beckford was English, he wrote the novel in French. The early editions did not give an author, claiming that it was an Arabian tale translated into the French from the Arabic. This allowed the novel to capitalize on the Orientalism fads of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which the excesses of the East were described excessively by the West. While often classified as a Gothic novel, it demonstrates none of the fun elements of Gothic novels. There are supernatural elements: genies, demons and magic, but for all Beckford's attempts to describe them, they all come off as pretty lame. There's no real tension in the plot and no character to care about.

The Wikipedia entry for this book notes that authors such as Clark Aston Smith, H. P. Lovecraft and Brian Stableford found the book inspirational. I'm glad they did, but I could not ever lose myself in the world of Vathek, as much as I tried (and wanted to).