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dmp ([personal profile] dmp) wrote2011-04-19 21:51

QUAINT #16 Vathek: An Arabian Tale by William Beckford

Vathek was created by William Beckford and appeared in Vathek: An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, with Notes Critical and Explanatory (1786). Beckford (1760-1844) was one of English literature's real oddities. He lived a life of scandal and extravagance, both financial and sexual, and even in the 21st century his name retains the faint air of scandal. But more important than Beckford’s personal life is the fact that he wrote Vathek, one of the greatest of all Gothic novels.

Vathek, the grandson of Haroun al-Raschid, is the Caliph of Samarah. He is dedicated to sensual pleasure and has built five palaces, one for the enjoyment of each sense. Vathek has a “pleasing and majestic” figure, and a keen intellect. When angered his glance can kill. He has an enormous amount of determination and is willing to sacrifice much for his goals. But he is magnificently dissolute and addicted to pleasure, sensuality, and new sensations. He is enormously self-centered and considers the lives of others small prices to pay for his own happiness and the achievement of his goals. He is unable to resist temptation, and his own “unquiet and impetuous disposition” will not allow him to be content with the wealth and comfort he already has.

Vathek builds a mighty tower to better pursue his interest in astrology and to penetrate the secrets of Heaven, and Mahomet Himself sends genii to help Vathek, but the tower only shows Vathek how much he enjoys looking down on humanity from the its summit. But one day an intensely ugly creature arrives at Vathek’s court bearing wondrous objects, knives that cut without the hand being moved and sabers which harm those who the wielder wished harmed. The stranger does not speak to Vathek, so the hot-tempered Vathek has him imprisoned, only to find him vanished the next morning and his guards slain.

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