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.

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The Sunday Salon: The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

When I was reading Among Others, I was particularly struck by how difficult it was for Mor, the protagonist, to find speculative fiction as a young teenager in the 1970s or even full bibliographies of authors she loves. God, I thought, what must be like to forage for the stuff? I’m inordinately blessed, to live in an age where I can easily discover what the entire works of, say, Jacqueline Carey consist of and not have to just wander down the poorly lit fantasy/sci-fi section of my public library and take a stab. (I mean, I still do, because you can’t beat that atmosphere, but I don’t have to play bookish roulette.) Pre-internet fandom utterly fascinates me by virtue of how difficult it was to simply communicate and share information compared to the embarrassment of riches we have today. How did we find the kind of books we wanted to read? Well, from 1969 to 1974, there was at least one resource for the speculative fiction crowd—the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

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