William Beckford was an interesting character. Wealthy, flamboyant, frequently mired in scandal, the genius (or lunatic) behind the architecturally improbable Fonthill Abbey and the author of one of the first Gothic novels - Vathek, which was first published in 1786. Vathek took many of the typical themes of the Gothic novel such as the desire to provoke feelings of awe and wonder in the reader, not to mention the thrill of terror, and added a colourful twist in the form of a beautifully described oriental setting. The story itself is a variation on the Faustian tale in which the Giaour, an unpleasant-looking supernatural being with streaked green teeth, promises the tyrannical Caliph Vathek a sight of his awe-inspiring underground kingdom in return for, amongst other things, the sacrifice of the fifty most beautiful youths in the Caliph's dominions. The deal is sealed, and Vathek's wilful march to damnation begins.
What sets the novel apart from so much early Gothic fiction is not only its use of an oriental setting but rather the quality of the writing. Beckford wrote his book in French so as to set it apart from the tawdry pieces written in vulgar English. The French text was then translated, under Beckford's watchful eye, by Samuel Henley. Between them the two men ended up with a very elegant short English novel. In particular the descriptions of the strange events such as Vathek's witch-like mother burning noxious substances at the top of a tower in order to please the Giaour have a dream-like intensity. Similarly humour is used to lighten the mood such as when the beautiful and nubile Nouronihar runs rings around one of Vathek's elderly and dusty advisors. The whole work is an endlessly surprising mix of the surreal, the weird, the exotic, the playful and, ultimately, the horrifying.
The most famous part of the book is the conclusion with its description of the Giaour's subterranean palace of Eblis. It's a nightmarish and yet strangely beautiful creation - like something from a fevered opium dream and reading the account of Vathek's tour through the halls and environs you can easily see why the book held such a fascination for people such as Byron. It's a sublime piece of work. All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Vathek. It is written in a more elegant prose style than much of the Gothic fiction that had gone before and it uses its beautiful and terrifying landscapes to great effect. It has panache and verve and, at times, I was reminded of some of Coleridge's more vivid and feverish poetry. It's sublime and awe-inspiring in equal measure - exactly what a good Gothic novel should be.
Cynical, surreal and utterly enthralling. With images and sentences that are sure to stick in your mind, this book will truly open your eyes to not only the Oriental tale, but also the Victorian Gothic. If you want to see a man, with a hedonistic complex for knowledge and pleasures of the flesh fall further tha even Faust; this could be the book you're looking for.
As with all Oxford Classics, the book itself is nice quality and has informative frontmatter/intro. However I'm just not into Romantic literature and this book is no exception. It's a strange Orientalised tale which is not particularly compelling, but if you like Romantic novels and mystical Eastern stories you might enjoy it.