by William Beckford
“The condition appointed to man is to be ignorant and humble.”
Reputed as one of the first gothic horror novels ever written (1782, published in 1786), and possibly beaten only by The Castle of Otranto (1764), this is a kind of Arabian Nights journey into Hell.
Vathek is the story of a Caliph, THE Caliph, who rules all, takes whatever he wants, and lives his life fulfilling every imaginable pleasure, wielding extensive knowledge and cravings for the finest food and exotic women. A merchant passes through with some unusual items, including swords marked with text no one can read. The Caliph is enamored with the swords, claims them, and spends some time tracking down someone who can read the writing on the blades.
Eventually the message is translated, but it turns out the message changes every day. While first promising unlimited knowledge, it now reads of death. Vathek packs up his entourage and travels to the mountains to quench his thirst and there is met by the merchant who originally sold the swords. The Caliph is treated to a vision of the halls of Eblis (Hell), where he is to be granted ultimate knowledge should he brave the journey. Rules must be followed, sacrifices must be made, and Vathek will stop at nothing to attain this power and begins his journey. It has no small helping of the occult, and as the Caliph approaches his destination there are enchanted items, sorcery and djinn all over the place.
Which all makes the book sound pretty damned good.
An issue with the story, while still respecting its place in history, is there are few redeeming character qualities presented here. It’s told in an almost biblical, parable style without any real moral except, ‘don’t do this.’ Because there is difficulty in gathering sympathy for the characters it’s harder to become invested despite the book’s value in helping create a genre. Even so, it’s well worth a read, if for nothing else then for its historical context.