Vathek (1786) By: William Beckford
Vathek is the ruler of a kingdom and has devoted his life to pleasure. One day he buys some beautiful swords from a merchant claiming to be from India. He wants to know where the merchant got them, but when he refuses to speak the Caliph becomes angry. He uses his special ability of killing people with a look, but that doesn't work. Instead, he imprisons the merchant. The next morning the merchant has escaped, and his guards are all dead. This begins several misadventures involving the merchant, known as the Giaour, offering Vathek more and more at increasingly higher cost. This leads his mother, Princess Carathis, to send him on a quest of power and damnation.
This is a stream of consciousness story and would have benefited from chapters or at least some form of break. It is a long series of paragraphs that make it difficult to tell when we switch characters, place or start a new part of the story. The first quarter is enjoyable, but as characters were added and plot points randomly brought up it becomes more difficult to follow. Also, all the characters have Arabian names that cause confusion. especially about several of the minor characters and their allegiances.
They're All Doomed Anyway (Maybe Not All)
Vathek is the Caliph who has grown up in the lap of luxury. The story says be is beautiful, but once they describe his ridiculous eating habits; it is easy to picture him as fat. The man has everything one could want, which leads him to want more than he should is nothing new and his character is stretched to the breaking point. His antics are amusing at the start, but begin to wear in the middle
Carathis is Vathek’s mother who craves power and has a accursed castle filled with mummys and mute servants. She has raised her some into the spoiled brat that he is, but she has managed to teach him black magic and astronomy. At the start her role is quite confusing. Adviser? Lover? Mother? Temptress? She evolves from adviser to mother over the course of the story.
The Giaour is the best thing about this tale. He is a devil figure and an amusing tempter and tormenter of Vathek. He becomes a minor character after the first 25% and that's where this story lost its luster. The Giaour torturing Vathek is funny. Vathek doing stupid things is not funny. His name mean unbeliever or infidel, so don't use 'giaour' around any Muslim friends.
Emir Fakreddin offers Vthek and his entourage a place to rest during their travels. He is a man of such faith that his keeps fifty dwarves who study the Koran daily. Vathek, being the little crap that he is, decides to seduce the Emir's daughter, break up her engagement and nearly kill the Emir.
Nouronihar is the Emir's daughter. She was almost as difficult to pin down as Carathis. I think Beckford either had a hard time writing women or knew only fickle women. She starts off being in love with and engaged to her effeminate cousin Gulchenrouz. After a series of events she changes her mind and sticks by Vathek to the end. I really didn't care about her or her story.
The book has some great descriptions and it is clear that Beckford knew a lot about his subject. This has been called the 1,002nd Arabian Night and does evoke the feel of a Middle Eastern Fairy Tale. Unfortunately. Beckford is a white guy which makes a lot of things in this story fairly racist. He wrote it a long time ago, but it is still uncomfortable to read about how 'blackness' is 'evil.'
In the End
This story gets a bit rambling and lost in the middle as it tries to hammer in its point. As such, the ending being a moral lesson dump is a big let down. It does have some fantastically gruesome imagery right before the end, but the last page spoils the effort made that far.
For modern readers this will likely be more of a chore than it's worth. There are much better horror comedy fictions to read. However, the writing and descriptions were well done, and the start is amusing. I'd say it is worth reading the first 25% and then the last 15% all you miss is Vathek doing more stupid things and picking up the princess.
Remember this is free for Kindle and at Project Gutenberg!