The weirdness of Vathek lives on.  Even in its day Vathek by William Beckford wasn’t strictly classifiable, although its author might have been.  Beckford himself is a fascinating historic figure, but Vathek’s getting the attention here and there is more to Vathek than meets the eye.  The story of how the story of Vathek came to light is strange and would make a good book in itself, but for the time being it’s best to concentrate on the horrific, heroic, archaic, verbose, religionist and occult facets of the novel itself.  It’s a shame that Vathek is often classed with the Gothic novels of its period, but it soars far above them.  Sure Vathek’s got Gothic elements, but it has a mountain more tricks than that.

The story of Vathek defies expectations, and also traditions.  As a storytelling model, Beckford had The Arabian Nights, which is where most of its comedy and pastiche derive, but he also adored Voltaire, who did as much as anybody to firm up the new novel form into a working model of literary perfection.  As language changes, so what Beckford wrote seems more perfect, demonstrably crazy English, every period a joy.  ‘Nor shall I leave the meadow, till I have visited every hive of these pious mendicants.’ (Page 61 — that was me literally opening he book at random and reading the first line I saw.)

What Vathek himself, the execrable blubberer and sensation seeker of the title craves most during his licentious and deplorable adventures are supernatural powers, and his greatest and most conniving ally in this quest is his mother.  Islam is used as a literary excuse to have a go at religion in general, because it is scantly distinguished from Christianity in terms of its effect on the individual, although many of Islam’s habits seem arbitrary and strange to the reader — but that was one of the charms of The Arabian Nights too.  Muslims are of course ‘people of the book’, like Christians.

Vathek, the book is like a massive rock crystal, shining and blinding, immorally weird, crass and confusing  with its thousands of facets, and the story will appear to the modern reader as pointless as can be, and most unforgiving in its lack of what we enjoy as literary constructions an customs.  That said, it can still be read, but a few hours in its company will still leave you confused, although you’ll know you’ve been somewhere weird indeed, and will not be able to account for it.