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Literature / Vathek

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Vathek (alternatively titled Vathek, an Arabian Tale or The History of the Caliph Vathek) is a Gothic Horror novel written by William Beckford. It was composed in French beginning in 1782, and then published in 1786 without Beckford's name as "An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript," claiming to be translated directly from Arabic (this was in fact an English translation by Reverend Samuel Henley). The novel chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek (a fictionalized version of the historical Al-Wathiq), who renounces Islam and engages with his mother, Carathis, in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers.

As a public domain work, it can be found at Project Gutenberg.


This story provides examples of:

  • "Arabian Nights" Days: Mixed with Gothic Horror.
  • Bad Boss: Applicable to both Vathek and Carathis, and ultimately even to Iblis.
    • Vathek shows absolutely no concern for the lives or well-being of his officials, servants or soldiers. Frequently, he degrades and tortures them For the Evulz.
    • Carathis is more callous and business-like about it then her son, but deliberately sacrifices persons helping her at least once in the tale (when she walks her huntsmen guides to death, and then instead of giving them decent burials, feeds them to ghouls). She also randomly poisons her daughters-in-law and other noblewomen, then heals them with antidotes, as a form of practice. And, of course, in the end she murders her faithful "mute negresses," apparently under the theory that they should not outlive their mistress.
    • Iblis sends forth his giaours to tempt proud men to his service in return for promises of treasure and power — but only gives them their rewards under conditions that ensure they will not enjoy their gifts.
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    • In a deeper sense (and possibly very intentionally on the part of Beckford, coming as he did from a liberal political family) this is true of the whole culture of the Abbasid Caliphate, which would let monsters like Vathek and Carathis so abuse their subjects for so long.
  • Controllable Helplessness: An early, non-video game example. Once Vathek is in hell, he is allowed to use the powers he came for for an unspecified, but brief, time before he is inevitably damned forever. Upon hearing this, he is so overcome with horror and despair that he doesn't even bother.
  • Deadly Gaze: Vathek has one.
    ... when he was angry one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear to behold it, and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The ultimate punishment of Hell forces one to cross this, along with having eternal fire burning in one's chest cavity.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Gulchenrouz.
    This Gulchenrouz was the son of Ali Hassan, brother to the Emir, and the most delicate and lovely creature in the world.... Nouronihar loved her cousin more than her eyes; both had the same tastes and amusements, the same long, languishing looks, the same tresses, the same fair complexions, and when Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin he seemed to be more feminine than even herself.
    • Also a Non-Action Guy:
      ... his dancing was light as the gossamer waved by the zephyrs of spring, but his arms, which twined so gracefully with those of the young girls in the dance, could neither dart the lance in the chase, nor curb the steeds that pastured his uncle’s domains.
  • Dumb Is Good: Or maybe Ambition Is Evil, especially when it leads to The Dark Arts and Scientific Sins:
    Such shall be the chastisement of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds that the wisdom of the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be— humble and ignorant.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Averted; Bababalouk is at worst a Punch-Clock Villain whose badness is mainly in working for someone like Vathek.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: The only other living human being Vathek cares about at the start of the book is his mother Carathis.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Vathek is vile, but he clearly loves his mother Carathis, and comes to love Nouronihar. For her part, Carathis may love Vathek (the political realities of her society mean that she has no practical alternative to supporting Vathek, so even if she only sees him as a tool to gain power, she can’t just murder him and seize the throne for herself the way she could if she were a man).
  • Evil All Along: Carathis is introduced as just Vathek’s mother who wants him cured of his strange illness, but as soon as he mentions the promise the Giaour made to him, she reveals that she has been practicing magic for decades and has a laboratory under the castle in which she practices necromancy and human sacrifice. From that point, she basically becomes the leader, pushing her son into ever greater villainy.
  • Evil Chancellor: Also averted; the vizier Morakanabad only wants what is best for Vathek, and has no knowledge of his or his mother’s diabolical actions at any point.
  • Evil Sorceror: Carathis, with a touch of Mad Scientist as well.
  • Faking the Dead: Fakreddin, Nouronihar’s father, does this with her and Gulchenrouz in an attempt to keep Vathek away from her. It doesn't work.
  • The Hedonist: Vathek built five sub-palaces (annexes) to his own hereditary palace, each devoted to one of the senses. This is the earliest foreshadowing of his descent into evil.
  • Hell: Vathek, Nouronihar, and Carathis end up there (called "The Palace of Subterranean Fire" in the story) in their quest for power. Has a fire and brimstone aspect in that the hearts of sinners are consumed with the flames of their sins such that it shines through their bodies.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The real Caliph Wathiq probably wasn’t a Satanist. Nor would his mother have been one, for that matter...
  • Human Sacrifice: Vathek goes so far as to sacrifice fifty children to an evil genie. They are saved by a Genie ex Machina.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Carathis and her servants kill all of the palace attendants who try to rescue them from what they believe to be the palace on fire (it is actually one of Carathis’s dark rituals). They then tell Morakanabad after the fact that those people died in the flames.
  • My Beloved Smother: Carathis is somewhere between this and Evil Matriarch, as she is always spurring Vathek on to greater heights of pride.
  • Our Genies Are Different: Some are evil, but some are devout Muslims and try to save Vathek from himself.
  • Pressure Point: Carathis' "mute negresses" practice a curious combat technique consisting of "pinching" opponents, even to death. It's not certain if this is a national martial art, or an evil extension of a common means of harem discipline.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A good genie, sent by The Prophet Muhammad, gives one to Vathek in which he enumerates all his sins, just before the latter is about to make his damnation inevitable.
  • Religious Horror: With an Islamic flavor, for once.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Vathek rips this idea down and dances on it, particularly by stealing away his host's daughter in defiance of her Arranged Marriage to Gulchenrouz.
  • Satan: Going by the name of Eblis here.
  • Shown Their Work: Vathek is capped off by an extensive series of endnotes. Some of which have footnotes.note 
  • Spoiled Brat: Nouronihar, whose first appearance in the story involves playing a mean prank on Bababalouk, just because she can.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Poor, poor Bababalouk.
  • Villainous Glutton: Vathek, and how! This is his appetite dulled by stress:
    The Caliph, nevertheless, remained in the most violent agitation; he sat down indeed to eat, but of the three hundred covers that were daily placed before him could taste of no more than thirty-two.
  • Villain Protagonist: Vathek is cruel, wrathful, ruthless and selfish at the start of the story, and he has degenerated into a monster by the climax.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Vathek's people consider him a hero and are almost absurdly loyal to him at the start of the story, even as he oppressively taxes and indeed murders them. This does not last.