William Beckford – Vathek

One of the early Gothic novels is the tale of Vathek (1786) by William Beckford. In essence it is more alike a traditional fairy tale in the style of the brothers Grimm mixed with Tales Of One Thousand And One Nights. The Gothic element is found mostly in its cruel depiction of events which provide some play on morality as early on a sense of doom starts creeping in. The events told are obviously bad and evil and nothing good will come from it. The setting is the Middle East in times when the Arabs were dominant, which would be around the year 1000. The location is kept vague as Beckford makes up names and places for which no real analogues can be found. It is the story that matters and as it is a fantastic tale which would be hampered by trying to fit it in a real environment.

It are the strong fantastical elements that sets it apart from, what I consider to be, the typical Gothic tale that has become common. Usually Gothic tales are embedded in a realistic environment which gets twisted in one way or the other. This to have a greater effect on the reader experience. I wouldn’t call it fantasy in the straight sense as it has a closer resembles to fairy tales and the tales of the Arabian Nights. The latter has probably been used by Beckford as inspiration. Although I haven’t read the original stories (yet), I did get that genuine feeling I had when seeing movie and TV adaptations. In that sense the story will give you a familiar feeling.

One of the problems of the novel is some lack of internal coherency. The tale is episodic in nature although it follows a main theme. I say episodic because events don’t follow naturally. Instead the story simply jumps from one to another storyline, often with little repercussions of what happened previously in what happened next. Realism is very much absent so it doesn’t matter anyways (so one could assume the author might have thought). Because of this I had trouble sticking to the story, even as it is a short novel (rather a novella in truth).

The main trouble I had to keep reading continuously was the prose. It is not bad at all. Beckford knows his style and has a large vocabulary besides it. No, the problem with the prose is that is written for a story teller. Beckford uses a dramatic style that works best when read aloud to an audience. Because of this dialogues are somewhat unnatural as they are written as proclamations or as if it were a play. This quickly gets tiresome unless you try voicing what you read in your own head.

The story itself is fairly entertaining although at times it felt like a hotchpotch of fairy tales mixed together. It is only lightly Gothic as the fantastical dominates and the events are more comical than trying to put it in a realistic setting. A nice read, but not really remarkable.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.