Off the Shelf: A terrible eye for evil: Kenneth Baxter on an exotic tale from an 18th-century eccentric

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The Independent Culture
THE 18TH CENTURY provided its own antidote to overmuch classicism by cultivating the Gothic and the Oriental which both lent themselves to the telling of 'exotic' tales flavoured with moralising. The most powerfully imaginative and opulently descriptive was Vathek: the extraordinary product of an extraordinary man.

William Beckford, whom Byron called 'England's wealthiest son' was heir to a West Indian fortune. He was sometime an MP but, more importantly, a notable eccentric, a traveller and collector in the grand manner and builder of fantastic houses - at Cintra, Fonthill and Bath - which, in his later years, he preferred to inhabit as a recluse, surrounded by pictures, splendid furniture, miscellaneous curiosities and thousands of books. When, dressed in the fashion of an earlier generation, he rode out on his grey Arab, he was attended by Perro, his misshapen dwarf, and a retinue of grooms and hounds. Not surprisingly, he and his lifestyle were the object of much curiosity - and some ill-natured speculation.

Vathek is as unique as its author. He claimed to have written it, in French, aged 22, at a single sitting of three days and two nights without removing his clothes, but is known to have taken a good deal longer over its revision. It is based on an Arabian Nights-style tradition but is brilliantly original as an evocation of evil in a luxuriant setting.

It tells the story of a young, megalomaniac caliph with a 'terrible eye' who, under the malign influence of a necrophiliac mother, is in league with Eblis, the Prince of Darkness. Like Milton's Satan, 'his form had not yet lost all its original brightness, nor appeared less than archangel ruined'. He presides, seated on a globe of fire, over a subterranean region of sombre magnificence where the damned are condemned to gyrate in an eternity of unabated anguish and despair.

The scenes in the Hall of Eblis, according to one respected scholar, are the most convincingly 'infernal' since Dante. There, after some extravagant but compellingly described experiences, arrive Vathek, his fearless princess, Nouronihir, and his wicked mother. And there, after being permitted to contemplate the treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans, they meet their irrevocable fate: sentenced to circulate for ever, right hand upon visibly burning heart, throughout the echoing spaces of hell.

Not surprisingly, the little book, fewer than 40,000 words, was a sensation in both France and England. The style, interwoven with delicate irony, is mellifluously seductive; and Byron, whose own gloomier moods it suited well, praised it for its astonishing knowledge of Eastern mythology.

One sees what Byron meant. Fearful giaours, cruel afrits, mute eunuchs, deaf, one-eyed negresses, delectable damsels and pretty, little sacrificial boys diversify the pages together with hideous ghouls, the polylingual Simurgh bird, peries and jinns.

Apart from entertaining accounts, 40 years afterwards, of his youthful travels in Spain and Portugal, Beckford published nothing more of much consequence during his long life. Nor had he need to.