Vathek had been on my reading list a long time. It's always paired with other classics of 18th-19th century gothic literature, like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Castle of Otranto--faves of mine--so it's been on my radar awhile.
Rather than taking place in Europe like most gothic lit of the period--amongst medieval ruins, wind-swept plains and sublime mountains--we're transported somewhere in the Orient. It's very vague. Beckford was no doubt taking advantage of the then current (1782) popularity of "Orientalism," since stories like The Arabian Nights had just found their way to Europe.
All the tropes of gothic lit are here: ghosts and demons, extreme emotions, towers, subterranean passages, and religion vs. enlightenment (science). In this case the religion being explored is Islam rather than Catholicism.
I wasn't familiar with a lot of the terminology and mythology of Islam, so of course I had google up and ready. I think I spent more time wikipedia surfing than actually reading the book.
If you feel like wasting a few hours, here are some pages to check out:
Wait, Ifrit! I know that one. Thanks Final Fantasy! (don't let anyone tell you can't learn from video games)
In the story the Caliph Vathek is a rich, spoiled, pleasure and knowledge-seeking ruler. He is given the opportunity to attain all the power and knowledge of a god, if he renounces Mohammed and performs heinous deeds to prove it. Heinous as in feeding 50 children to a demon. Goaded on by his evil mother, Vathek works his way into hell and discovers just what his reward will be for his efforts.
It's a twisted fairy tale with a heavily didactic moral in the end. Which is beyond being just "don't kill children." Beckford's fight is against the enlightenment movement. The moral is "don't seek knowledge you're not meant for." An Adam and Eve story for an Arabian prince.
And don't make deals with the devil. At least not for "ultimate knowledge." Don't settle for less than new car. Or a Mad Men DVD box set.
*struck by lightning*