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?
Continue Reading »