Review: The History of Caliph Vathek

The History of Caliph Vathek by William Beckford


Modern fantasy, as we all know, was born with The Lord of the Rings. (Modern fantasy’s problem with serial structure was born around the same time.) But the genre existed long before Tolkien, and its pre-Tolkien history is something I’m keenly interested in. Last November, I listed off all the entries in the classic seventies Ballantine Adult Fantasy series that were in the public domain. I intend to make my way through all of them, more or less in chronological order. Okay, so this isn’t Orlando Furioso, which predates The History of Caliph Vathek by two hundred years, but the thought of narrative poetry gave me acid reflux. I figured it was a bad omen.

The History of Caliph Vathek (also known as Vathek or Vathek, An Arabian Tale) follows the story of Vathek, the ninth Caliph of the Abassides, whose tireless quest for knowledge has made him renounce Islam and lock himself up in a tower with his pagan mother, studying all arts and indulging all senses. When a hideous Indian merchant comes into town bearing stunning, supernatural weaponry, Vathek becomes obsessed with discovering where they came from. His loathing for the merchant causes the whole town to attack him, but only when he’s suffered it all does the merchant reveal that he is a jinn, capable of bestowing on Vathek all the knowledge that he desires—at a price. The novel was originally composed in Beckford’s native French in 1782, but was translated by Reverend Samuel Henley in 1786 and passed off as an authentic Arabic tale.

According to the introduction included in the public domain version available on Amazon by a one H. M., William Beckford wrote Vathek “at a heat, in one long sitting, without flagging power”, and it shows. With the publication of Antoine Galland’s French translation of The Thousand and One Nights in 1704, Orientalism ran rampant through Europe in the 18th century, influencing both the Gothic novel and Romanticism. The History of Caliph Vathek marries together this Orientalist streak and the Gothic novel, resulting in a novel that feels like a self-indulgent fever dream. Beckford frantically crams as much blood and sex into the novel as he can, before giving us an ending where Vathek and his mother, Carathis, end up in hell for their actions. I’m reminded of nothing more than the original Reefer Madness; it’s an Orientalist exploitation novel, pure and simple. (Which, of course, means that any enterprising soul could create a brilliant parody of this material. You get that one for free, Internet.)

In the world of The History of Caliph Vathek, women are evil (especially women of color; Carathis has several “negresses” to attend her in her wicked ways), virgins are sacrificed, and people are burned alive, just to scratch the surface. Occasional lip service is paid to the fact that Vathek has gone disastrously astray, but any deeper, philosophical questions are ignored in favor of lush landscapes and the antics of the beautiful, sexually available women of Vathek’s bevy of wives. Perverse, I think, is quite the way to put it, although its perversity looks a little tame to a woman who works slush in the twenty-first century and watches Tarantino films. It’s easily distracted and underdone, sprawling all over the place, making it an honestly bizarre read.

However, I sincerely doubt people pick this novel up on its own merits these days; it is the historical context that keeps it from fading into historical obscurity. Several Romantics drew inspiration from The History of Caliph Vathek, from Lord Byron to Thomas Moore to John Keats. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it influenced the weird fiction writers H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Having only read At The Mountains of Madness, I can easily see the connecting line between Beckford’s feverish pitch and Lovecraft’s own breathless tones. I imagine a small part of my cool reception of this novel comes from the phenomenon of urtexting; anything I find worthwhile in this text has already been taken and appropriated into other texts I’ve encountered before.

Well, everything except this one line, which deserves to be the title of something:

“We have here then,” subjoined Carathis, “a girl both of courage and science!”

Bottom line: A feverish Orientalist exploitation novel. Strictly for pre-Tolkien fantasy historians.

I downloaded this free digital book from the Kindle Store.

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