Today the popular horror genre has been defanged by hunky vampires, fallen bad boy angels and often gender offensive gore fiction. They walk around in leather, sulk and do little biting, killing or mayhem making. Never the less, the horror genre is alive in well, kept there by some stalwarts of the industry. Sure horror may not be everyone’s cup of literary tea, but it is a valuable and antique part of the fiction pantheon.
We all know about the legends King, Lovecraft, Stoker, Shelley and Poe. Yet as we hurdle towards All Hallows Eve, we wanted to illuminate readers to an old work of horror, considered one of the earliest examples of Gothic fiction- Vathek.
As Orientalism captured European imaginations, ways to render in print the grandeur and mysteries of the East, even if they were more often than not wrong, ill informed or bigoted and based on creative reinterpretations of regional myths, become solidified in works like 1001 Nights. However, in the late 18th century, a work was translated from French(reportedly from Arabic) to English would set a standard for Gothic fiction and serve as inspiration for generations to come.
Vathek is a fictionalized version of a 9th century Abbasid Caliph, who renounces his faith in a bid to gain supernatural powers. The story starts with the ruthless leader buying some engraved swords from a strange merchant. Unable to translate them after the seller disappears, he finds one man who can translate them.
Yet the next day, the inscription changes. Maddened by this, Vathek finds himself propelled in one strange direction after another. Encountering the old merchant once again, but hounded by unquenchable thirst, murderous mandates and haunted by strange demons, Vathek is caught up in a unyielding chaos that pits him against the largest forces of evil known to man, Iblis or Shaytan, the devil.
H.P. Lovecraft wrote (with some language unacceptable to modern readers) of Beckford’s Vathek, “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.“
Western readers today, especially those in North American, are comfortable with Euro-centric retellings of folktales or derivatives of Greco-Roman mythology in fiction. Yet some of the earliest fantasy and even horror used what we know today as the Middle East as its stage of honor.
So while Vathek is not nearly as well known as Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster, it deserves to be right there at the top of Gothic Fiction.