We love mummies. Literature and film are full of examples of the evil dead rising from their tombs to take revenge on the living, usually wrapped up in ideas of jealousy and ancient curses (and bandages). When a well-preserved bog body is exhumed from a park in the English Midlands early in James Brogden’s Hekla’s Children, a reader could be forgiven for expecting a reign of terror and death. Don’t worry: we get all of that, but the archaeological curiosity has a more interesting story to tell.
A decade earlier, Nathan Brookes was leading a group of teenagers through Sutton Park when they all disappeared. One returned the following day, confused and delirious, leaving Nathan under a cloud of suspicion ever since. In the present, when bog body is discovered in the same park, it’s initially believed to be one of the missing kids. When it turns out to be much too old, Dr. Tara Doumani is brought in by the police to examine the body, quickly dubbed “Rowton Man”. Though a connection between the two incidents seems unlikely, Tara is visited by the surviving teen, Olivia, who demands the body be returned to the peat bog. Further investigation reveals that most of the bog body dates to the bronze age—but not all of it. Parts of it might belong to one of the lost kids. Nathan, Tara, Olivia, and Sue Vickers, who was with Nathan that day in the park, are soon brought together to solve the mystery and explore the bog body’s connection to Un, a shadowy world of the human collective unconscious. A past that might best have remained buried is quite literally exhumed, and the resulting disruption of Rowton Man’s body leaves our world in danger.
Brogden tells a story that stretches across the centuries, in a way that’s unusually literal. The ways in which time bends and shapes itself to the story feel intuitive, even if the logic is that of dreams. Un is a land built from the collective memory of humankind, a place where humans exist as they always have, after a fashion—we exist there as the logic of story suggests that we might, in a rough approximation of an imagined past. Point being: it’s a weird place, and unique in that it’s neither fantasy nor precisely history. To travel through Un is to travel through time, with landscapes representing worlds of the human unconscious, shaped by history and belief and by the mind and fluid desires of the traveller (including some interesting sexual fluidity). For the people who live there, though, it all seems very real. The weird logic is comfortable for the residents, who largely stick to their own individual territories. Staying put seems to be a way to mitigate and manage the laws that govern Un.
One place best avoided is the bit of bog overseen by the creature who becomes Rowton Man (aka Bark Foot), a nameless conglomeration of body parts and aspects of individuals who sacrificed parts of themselves to create this single-minded guardian. Bark Foot’s job is to protect our world from the afaugh, a creature of unadulterated gluttony, whose voracious appetites leave it without morals or much in the way of self-control (Brogden’s story suggests that such a creature has been trapped beyond the veil; I’m not convinced it isn’t already here). Roughly 3,000 years ago, the Hekla volcano in modern-day Iceland sent enough volcanic debris in the atmosphere to cool and darken the Northern Hemisphere for several years. This is the era during which Bark Foot was created, the suggestion being that peoples of the past had a much closer connection to the dream-like lands of Un, and some skill in accessing the place. They were able to banish the afaugh there, sending the spirit of a champion to guard the gateway. A champion whose physical remains are tied to our world.
Cannily, Brogden recognizes that the draw of the imagined past is, in many ways, a trap. While the lands of Un largely represent visions of tribal Gaelic and Northern European cultures (the our-world bits of the story are set in the English Midlands, so it makes sense that our protagonists would see Un through that filter), there are elements of the natural idyll Tolkien would have fetishized, but also less savory aspects: slavery, and a cruel, crushing class system. We like to daydream of simpler times in a more noble past, but Brogden reminds us that it’s not nearly so simple. The past is a complicated and dangerous place. The characters that adapt most easily to Un aren’t necessarily among the book’s most savory.
Each of the characters is stuck in her or his own version of the past. It’s not something that we can escape by turning our backs on it. While Brogden seems, initially, to be telling us the past should remain buried, there’s a deeper message: the past must be confronted, or we all risk being consumed by a slow rot from within. Hekla’s Children suggests we confront our personal and collective pasts, and does so by spanning a decade in the lives of its characters and 3,000 years of human history. Wrap in the trappings of mummy fiction, and it becomes a smart blend of science fiction and horror.