Read CHAPTER V — THE ORIENTAL TALE OF TERROR. BECKFORD of The Tale of Terror, free online book, by Edith Birkhead, on

Beckford’s History of the Caliph Vathek, which was written in French, was translated by the Rev. Samuel Henley, who had the temerity to publish the English version described as a translation from the Arabic in 1786, before the original had appeared. The French version was published in Lausanne and in Paris in 1787. An interest in Oriental literature had been awakened early in the eighteenth century by Galland’s epoch-making versions of The Arabian Nights (1704-1717), The Turkish Tales (1708) and The Persian Tales (1714), which were all translated into English during the reign of Queen Anne. Many of the pseudo-translations of French authors, such as Gueulette, who compiled The Chinese Tales, Mogul Tales, Tartarian Tales, and Peruvian Tales, and Jean-Paul Bignon, who presented The Adventures of Abdallah, were quickly turned into English; and the Oriental story became so fashionable a form that didactic writers eagerly seized upon it as a disguise for moral or philosophical reflection. The Eastern background soon lost its glittering splendour and colour, and became a faded, tarnished tapestry, across which shadowy figures with outlandish names and English manners and morals flit to and fro. Addison’s Vision of Mirza (1711), Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), and various essays in The Rambler, Dr. Hawkesworth’s Almoran and Hamet (1761), Langhorne’s Solyman and Almena (1762), Ridley’s Tales of the Genii (1764), and Mrs. Sheridan’s History of Nourjahad (1767) were among the best and most popular of the Anglo-Oriental stories that strove to inculcate moral truths. In their oppressive air of gravity, Beckford, with his implacable hatred of bores, could hardly have breathed. One of the most amazing facts about his wild fantasy is that it was the creation of an English brain. The idea of Vathek was probably suggested to Beckford by the witty Oriental tales of Count Antony Hamilton and of Voltaire. The character of the caliph, who desired to know everything, even the sciences which did not exist, is sketched in the spirit of the French satirists, who turned Oriental extravagance into delightful mockery. Awed into reverence ere the close by the sombre grandeur of his own conception of the halls of Eblis, Beckford cast off the flippant mood in which he had set out and rose to an exalted solemnity.

Beckford’s mind was so richly stored with the jewels of Eastern legend that it was inevitable he should shower from his treasury things new and old, but everything which passes through the alembic of his imagination is transmuted almost beyond recognition. The episode of the sinners with the flaming hearts has been traced to a scene in the Mogul Tales, where Aboul Assam saw three men standing mute in postures of sorrow before a book on which were inscribed the words: “Let no man touch this divine treatise who is not perfectly pure.” When Aboul Assam enquired of their fate they unbuttoned their waistcoats, and through their skin, which appeared like crystal, he saw their hearts encompassed with fire. In Beckford’s story this grotesque scene assumes an awful and moving dignity. From The Adventure of Abdallah, Son of Hanif, Beckford derived the conception of a visit to the regions of Eblis, whom, however, by a wave of his wand, he transforms from a revolting ogre to a stately prince.

To read Vathek is like falling asleep in a huge Oriental palace after wandering alone through great, echoing halls resplendent with a gorgeous arras, on which are displayed the adventures of the caliph who built the palaces of the five senses. In our dream the caliph and his courtiers come to life, and we awake dazzled with the memory of a myriad wonders. There throng into our mind a crowd of unearthly forms aged astrologers, hideous Giaours, gibbering negresses, graceful boys and maidens, restless, pacing figures with their hands on their hearts, and a formidable prince whose adventures are woven into a fantastic but distinct and definite pattern around the three central personages, the caliph Vathek, his exquisitely wicked mother Carathis, and the bewitching Nouronihar. The fatal palace of Eblis, with its lofty columns and gloomy towers of an architecture unknown in the annals of the earth, looms darkly in our imagination. Beckford alludes, with satisfaction, to Vathek as a “story so horrid that I tremble while relating it, and have not a nerve in my frame but vibrates like an aspen," and in the Episodes leads us with an unhallowed pleasure into other abodes of horror a temple adorned with pyramids of skulls festooned with human hair, a cave inhabited by reptiles with human faces, and an apartment whose walls were hung with carpets of a thousand kinds and a thousand hues, which moved slowly to and fro as if stirred by human creatures stifling beneath their weight. But Beckford passes swiftly from one mood to another, and was only momentarily fascinated by terror. So infinite is the variety of Vathek in scenery and in temper that it seems like its wealthy, eccentric, author secluded in Fonthill Abbey, to dwell apart in defiant, splendid isolation.

It is impossible to understand or appreciate Vathek apart from Beckford’s life and character, which contain elements almost as grotesque and fantastic as those of his romance. He was no visionary dreamer, content to build his pleasure-domes in air. He revelled in the golden glories of good Haroun-Alraschid, but he craved too for solid treasures he could touch and handle, for precious jewels, for rare, beautiful volumes, for curious, costly furniture. The scenes of splendour portrayed in Vathek were based on tangible reality. Beckford’s schemes in later life his purchase of Gibbon’s entire library, his twice-built tower on Lansdown Hill, were as grandiose and ambitious as those of an Eastern caliph. The whimsical, Puckish humour, which helped to counteract the strain of gloomy bitterness in his nature, was early revealed in his Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters and in his burlesques of the sentimental novels of the day, which were accepted by the compiler of Living Authors (1817) as a serious contribution to fiction by one Miss Jacquetta Agneta Mariana Jenks. Moore, in his Journal, October 1818, remarks:

“The two mock novels, Azemia and The Elegant Enthusiast, were written to ridicule the novels written by his sister, Mrs. Harvey (I think), who read these parodies on herself quite innocently.”

Even in the gloomy regions of Eblis, Beckford will not wholly repress his sense of the ridiculous. Carathis, unawed by the effulgence of his infernal majesty, behaves like a buffoon, shouting at the Dives and actually attempting to thrust a Soliman from his throne, before she is finally whirled away with her heart aflame. The calm politeness with which the dastardly Barkiaroukh consents to a blood-curdling murder, the sardonic dialogue between Vathek on the edge of the precipice and the Giaour concealed in the abyss, the buoyantly high-spirited description of the plump Indian kicked and pursued like “an invulnerable football,” the oppressive horror of the subterranean recesses, the mischievous pleasantry of the Gulchenrouz idyll reveal different facets of Beckford’s ever-varying temper. In Vathek, Beckford found expression not only for his devotion to the Eastern outlook on life, but also for his own strangely coloured, vehement personality. The interpreter walks ever at our elbow whispering into our ear his human commentary on Vathek’s astounding adventures.

Beckford’s pictures are remarkable for definite precision of outline. There are no vague hints and suggestions, no lurking shadows concealing untold horrors. The quaint dwarfs perched on Vathek’s shoulders, the children chasing blue butterflies, Nouronihar and her maidens on tiptoe, with their hair floating in the breeze, stand out in clear relief, as if painted on a fresco. The imagery is so lucid that we are able to follow with effortless pleasure the intricate windings of a plot which at Beckford’s whim twists and turns through scenes of wonderful variety. Amid his wild, erratic excursions he never loses sight of the end in view; the story, with all its vagaries, is perfectly coherent. This we should expect from one who “loved to bark a tough understanding." It is the intellectual strength and exuberant vitality behind Beckford’s Oriental scenes that lend them distinction and power.

The History of the Caliph Vathek did not set a fashion. It is true that the Orient sometimes formed the setting of nineteenth century novels, as in Disraeli’s Alvoy (1833), where for a brief moment, when the hero’s torch is extinguished by bats on his entry into subterranean portals, we find ourselves in the abode of wonder and terror; but not till Meredith’s Shaving of Shagpal (1856) do we meet again Beckford’s kinship with the East, and his gift for fantastic burlesque.