I had high hopes for this one. The author apparently wanted to do something like The Monk, but with a female villain. So I was looking forward to a really, really evil woman. And definitely, the novel is somewhat shocking, I guess, in its portrayal of female villainy (though Vathek far outpaces it) - but actually, pretty much ALL the women in the text end up being at least a little evil, which somewhat weakens the overall effect. And the moralizing is so heavy handed and droning that you lose most of the campy entertainment of the evil, which is a serious drawback. I guess there's also the shock value of an interracial love affair, but there's so much else going on at that point that you honestly don't really notice it. Overall, I have to say, the book was a bit disappointing - not a must-read by any means.
Some spoilers ahead, so be forewarned. The novel start with the story of a young couple who love each other so much that they wrap themselves in a kind of cocoon of joy, selfishly delighting in happiness and spoiling their children rotten. By page 3, it's made very clear to us that those children WILL be rotten. Oh yes! They could have been good! But poor parenting will doom them! To make matters worse, a mysterious houseguest arrives, a man who is so evil that his greatest delight is to be a homewrecker. Sure enough, he manages to seduce the young mother. This, it turns out, will ruin the children far more than their pampered upbringing. A mother who is a poor role model basically dooms her children to a life of evil.
So right away, the children are set up as pretty villainous, even before they've done anything. Unlike Ambrosius in The Monk, who had some moments of humanity, the daughter in this novel, Victoria, is basically evil to the core. She is interesting, occasionally, in her strategical scheming (realizing she can't appear too bold) and in her awareness of her masculine character (she's definitely a woman who project masculine energy), but she seems remarkably stupid when it comes to making plans and getting what she wants, which is irritating. In the midst of her various evil machinations, Zofloya the Moor enters the scene, with offers to assist. He's a mysterious sort of guy - he appears whenever she thinks about him, and is regularly accompanied with sweet music. She half wonders about this, and the various foreboding things he says, but she's too busy with her own schemes to really care.
You also get the story of the son and the mother, but neither are all that compelling. They all manage to be reunited by the end, by pure coincidence, though there's a bit of fate in it too, because, as the author tells us, "Such are the retributions of a just Providence, which, though sometimes tardy, are generally sure, even in this world." (256). The text also, in the conclusion, rather bravely tackles the problem of evil, suggesting that it obviously can't come from God (who is good), therefore must be blamed on Satan.
One vaguely interesting aspect of the text that I might find myself thinking about more later is the problem of knowing another person - Victoria's husband initially suspects her of being perhaps a bit cold-hearted, then becomes a bit of a jerk himself, but then becomes an all-around good guy who is completely oblivious to his wife's monstrosity (and murderous impulses). This part of the text is heavily, heavily ironic. I mean, constant scenes of the husband thinking how wonderful his wife is as she's trying to kill him. This is of course echoed later in Zofloya's interactions with Victoria, kind of, in that the reader can't help but notice the foreboding nature of the things he says, and Victoria seems oblivious. There are various scenes throughout the novel of characters misunderstanding or misjudging each other, which seems like it could be an interesting aspect to think about...
Oh! By the way: if you DO decide to read this book, don't read the Oxford World Classic's version. Not only does it give away the entire ending on the back cover (which is really, really annoying), the endnotes, by Kim Ian Michasiw, are just dismal. I mean, I normally don't notice endnotes, but these were so awful that they stuck out. They fall into three categories: either they unnecessarily give away parts of the plot, or they seem to be there just to show you that the person who wrote them is super smart and has read other books too, or they're utterly inane.