Lost in the Pyramids: Searching for Pulp Fiction’s Mummies

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In 1923, when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon entered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun—they reportedly found near the sarcophagus a warning on a clay tablet: “Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh.”   Supposedly, this curse was kept hidden from the workers, lest they refuse to excavate any further. A few months later, though, Lord Carnarvon was dead from an infected mosquito bite and within a few years, it has been calculated, 22 other people closely associated with the discovery had died before their time.

Today, any serious belief in ancient Egyptian curses would strike most of us as absurd. More likely,  westerners might be troubled by a sense of guilt, a feeling that even the best-intentioned scientists are little better than greedy or ghoulish grave-robbers and that archaeology itself is a kind of exploitation of the Middle East. Still, it’s hard to escape thinking about the pharaohs’ timeless, death-obsessed realm as other than mysterious and magical. The West has been doing so, after all, ever since Herodotus. The Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings, the great pyramids of Giza, dog-headed Anubis, the beautiful Queen Nefertiti, Karnak, hieroglyphic writing, The Book of the Dead—quite early on these became instantly recognizable as monuments of the other-worldly sublime and, more often than not, potent symbols of the occult. Unifying them all, of course, is the unsettling figure of the mummy.

Over the past few months I’ve read, or reread, some of the most famous stories about mummies, Egyptian curses, reincarnation and love that prevails over death and the passage of centuries. Unlike other monsters of the id, the mummy lacks a central master text—there is no equivalent to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, these tales display a surprising variety. In 1827 Jane Loudon Webb’s The Mummy!, set in an imagined 22nd century future, employs a revived Cheops to comment on society, ethics and religion. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” is distinctly satirical and ends with the narrator, sick of his shrewish wife, planning to have himself embalmed for a couple of hundred years. A comparably light-hearted spirit pervades Grant Allen’s “My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies” (1880). In this instance, a fortune-hunting cad discovers that on one evening every thousand years the mummies inside the pyramid of Abu Yilla return to life. He intrudes upon their millennial banquet, flirts with Pharaoh’s daughter, and decides to have himself embalmed so that he and the princess can be resurrected together in the future. Alas, the elaborate process is interrupted—Or was it all just a dream?

Even as mummies themselves exist in a kind of halfway-state between life and death, so tales about them frequently blur the line between reality and hallucination. In Rider Haggard’s “Smith and the Pharoahs,” the eponymous hero visits a London museum, where he falls in love with the painted image of an unknown Egyptian queen. After years of searching, he finally locates her tomb and takes from it two rings and some other treasure. Ultimately, Smith—wearing one of the rings—finds himself inadvertently locked in a Cairo museum over night. Is what happens next just a wish-fulfillng fantasy? As in She, Haggard suggests that great love transcends time and that even a seemingly ordinary Englishman may be more than he realizes.

Note that many of these early narratives aren’t actually scary, though Louisa May Alcott’s “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse” is an exception. In this chilling tale Professor Niles and a younger friend named Paul Forsyth lose their way inside a pyramid and, to attract help, burn the mummified body of a supposed sorceress. Forsyth does manage to save a little box he found in the mummy’s sarcophagus: It contains three seeds. Back home, he shows them to his fiancée Evelyn who, without telling anyone, plants one of the seeds, which ultimately bears a strangely beautiful, odorless blossom. She decides to wear it on her wedding dress. Not a good idea.

These stories, as well as others, can all be found in a trio of useful anthologies: Into the Mummy’s Tomb, edited by John Richard Stephens; The Mummy: Stories of the Living Corpse, edited by Peter Haining, and Mummy!: A Chrestomathy of Cryptology, edited by Bill Pronzini. As it happens, only one mini-classic appears in all three books, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lot, No. 249”:

“Of the dealings of Edward Bellingham with William Monkhouse Lee, and of the cause of the great terror of Abercrombie Smith, it may be that no absolute and final judgment will ever be delivered.” In Conan Doyle’s story we find—perhaps for the first time–the shuffling zombie-like creature of the B-movies, a silent killing machine in white wrappings, usually controlled by an evil magician or scientist. Neatly enough, Conan Doyle’s comparably fine tale of Egyptian magic, “The Ring of Thoth,” employs the alternate, far more romantic theme of the mummy subgenre: Through magic a priest or sorceress waits thousands of years for a chance to be reunited with a lost beloved. (This is, in fact, the central plot of both the 1932 Boris Karloff classic, “The Mummy,” and of the more recent 1999 action-adventure film of the same name.) In this particular instance, Sosra spends centuries seeking the elixir that will undo his immortality so that he can rejoin his beloved in the afterlife. Guy Boothby’s contemporaneous “A Professor of Egyptology” is animated by a closely similiar idea. The courtly Sinuhit can never rest until he has expiated his crime against the beautiful Nofrit, now finally reincarnated as a young Englishwoman named Cecelia. The gods, he explains to her, “decreed that my soul should never know peace till we had met again and you had forgiven me. I have waited all these years, and see—we meet at last.”

Among all the anthology favorites focusing on Egyptian magic are two stories that stand out simply because of their authorship. “The Vengeance of Nitocris” first appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1928 and was written by the 16-year-old Tennessee Williams. Essentially a rather ornate retelling of a (supposedly) historical event, it is surprisingly effective. Moreover, one can see in the murder of the pharaoh—torn to pieces by a mob—a motif later used in the play Suddenly, Last Summer, while the intensity of the bond between brother and sister would haunt William’s imagination all his life. An even more unusual contribution to Weird Tales was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” published in 1924 as a true-life adventure of Houdini, though actually ghost-written by H.P. Lovecraft.. The first-person narrative gradually builds to an appropriately hideous climax when the famous escape artist, trapped inside a pyramid, sees—or thinks he sees–a noxious, gigantic creature closely related to those more familiar Lovecraftian horrors, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth.

Egyptomania was probably at its peak during the first quarter of the 20th century, when Howard Carter was digging up the desert and unearthing Queen Hatshepsut in 1903 and King Tut in 1923. I decided to read several novels from just this period: Guy Boothby’s Pharos, the Egyptian (1899), Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), Riccardo Stephens’s The Mummy (1912), and Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918). Boothby’s is a tale of corrosive hate extending over centuries, as well as a critique of the West’s appropriation of ancient artifacts, a love story (with characters reminiscent of Trilby and the evil hypnotist Svengali), and a science fictional vision of biological terrorism on a pandemic scale. It’s an unsettling, even harrowing book (one I wrote about in greater detail here).

While lacking the mythic dimension of Dracula (1897), Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars revisits some of that earlier novel’s themes of sexual ambiguity, life-extension, the position of women in society, and the hypnotic power of a charismatic, indomitable personality. A young barrister named Malcolm Ross has recently met the lonely Margaret Trelawney, when he is suddenly called to her house in the middle of the night. Abel Trelawney, her father, has been viciously attacked and a hand severely injured, in fact nearly clawed off. Yet there seems no way that any assailant could have entered or left his bedroom. Stranger still, the reclusive Egyptologist has now fallen into a profound, unnatural catalepsy: Nothing can wake him.

Over the next several nights other disturbing events occur. Margaret’s normally docile pet cat goes berserk; watchers by the sleeper’s bedside feel an unnatural drowsiness; a nurse becomes virtually catatonic; and, finally, a policeman opens fire at something moving about the darkened room. Nonetheless, a subsequent attack nearly severs the wrist upon which Trelawney wears as a bangle the key to his safe.

As inexplicable as these events appear, Trelawney seems to have expected them, even prepared for them. He has, in fact, left strict written instructions that under no circumstances was his unconscious body to be moved from his room nor any of the objects in it taken away. Among those objects is the mummy of an accursed Egyptian queen.

At this point, Stoker relates the history of that mummy, found hidden in a cave on an almost inaccessible cliffside, in a desolate area shunned by locals who refer to it only as “the valley of the sorceress.” Queen Tera’s history is only gradually pieced together, since her very existence has been deliberately obliterated. A daughter of the pharaoh, she was born with seven fingers on one hand, grew adept in all the most esoteric forms of magic, and came to associate her destiny with both a seven-sided jewel and the seven stars of the Plough (i.e. The Big Dipper). After her mummy is discovered by Trelawney, one of his Bedouin workers cuts off the seven-fingered hand to use as a charm. He almost immediately falls to his death.

The Jewel of Seven Stars culminates in a daring experiment involving that hand, a mummified cat, the unearthly jewel, seven lamps, and the naked body of the queen. Precisely what happens, though, isn’t easy to say. Kate Hebblethwaite, editor of the Penguin edition of the novel, argues that Stoker uses his occult thriller plot to reflect on the evolving role of women in society. Is a sweet, submissive and traditional-minded daughter being infected by a spirit that is proud, independent and self-determining? Will “a new woman”—to use the signature catchphrase of Edwardian feminism–emerge from the conflict? To Hebblethwaite, the novel celebrates female autonomy and the final triumph of an unshakable will. I’m not so sure. To me, the great experiment appears to have been cut short with dire consequences. Yet however one judges Stoker’s climax, it is certainly overly elliptical and abrupt. For a later edition, he rewrote the final pages and radically altered, and softened, the ending.

Like the previously mentioned short stories of Poe and Grant Allen, Riccardo Stephens’ 1912 novel, The Mummy, is distinctly playful and witty. Indeed, as Mark Valentine notes in his introduction to the recent Valancourt edition, it possesses something of the insouciance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. Not least, it is also a classic whodunit.

One night the 50-year-old Dr. Armiston is unexpectedly called to the Albany—one of London’s fanciest addresses—to certify the death of a young man named Scrymgeour who, apparently, cracked his skull after falling off a chair. Upon finishing his examination of the body, Armiston accidentally opens a bedroom door and glimpses a peculiar object under a settee—a mummy case. A little while later, Armiston notices this same mummy case at the country house of another dead man. What’s going on?

Matters grow curious and curiouser when the good doctor receives an invitation to join an odd organization called the Society of Plain Speakers, where “at all meetings one must speak nothing but the absolute truth as one knows it.” There, Armiston encounters a stately red-haired beauty named Nora O’Hagan, who suffers from a terrible stammer, apparently the result of some kind of shock. Later, as if one secret society weren’t enough, Armiston learns about an elite inner circle of the Plain Speakers called the Open Minds. Its members meet to discuss the inexplicable and the occult.

The mummy — female as it turns out — lies at the center of an apparently frivolous pact: On certain appointed evenings, a group of Open Minds deal out cards and whoever receives the Ace of Spades must then install the “Lady” in his bedroom for two weeks, thus demonstrating his courage and disbelief in the curse attached to the Egyptian artifact. Instead, three people die before Armiston starts to perceive the truth and make his own plans.

As I say, Stephens’s nearly forgotten novel is highly entertaining, though most readers will guess the mystery behind the mummy fairly early on, though suspense is maintained up to the last moment. Still, behind the book’s various twists and red herrings lies a highly contemporary obsession: The desire to preserve or recapture youth. “Death is nothing,” Armiston is firmly told at one point. “One goes to explore a new country—which is always interesting. Or being tired, one sleeps. But the gradual decay! The growing old! The ceasing to enjoy, or to be enjoyed!”

Best known for his tales of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer wrote many other books as well and Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918) is an example of his fiction at its sensational, over-the-top best. Or, depending on your viewpoint, worst–Sometimes it’s hard to tell which. In the novel’s first chapter we are introduced to a distinctly epicene Oxford esthete:

Antony Ferrara . . . wore a silver-gray dressing gown, trimmed with white swansdown, above which his ivory throat rose statuesque. The almond-shaped eyes, black as night, gleamed strangely beneath the low, smooth brow. The lank of black hair appeared lusterless by comparison. His lips were very red. In his whole appearance there was something repellently effeminate.

Not surprisingly, Ferrara—whose name evokes the elegance and smoothness of Italian marble—often sounds like Oscar Wilde’s exquisite Lord Henry Wotton:

“Every man has within him something of the Sybarite. Why crush a propensity so delightful? The Spartan philosophy is palpably absurd; it is that of one who finds himself in a garden filled with roses and who holds his nostrils; who perceives there shady bowers, but chooses to burn in the sun; who, ignoring the choice fruits which tempt his hand and court his palate, stoops to pluck bitter herbs from the wayside.”

While women are fascinated by Ferrara, men generally find him repulsive. He’s certainly no clean and hearty Englishman. Significantly, his enemy, Robert Cairn—who bears a name that calls to mind a rough-hewn mound of stone and rock–will need every bit of his sturdy, masculine strength to resist the blandishments and spells of the hypnotic Ferrara. After all, the young hedonist turns out to be more than just decadent, he is, in fact, an evil and heartless magician and quite possibly not wholly human.

As the novel proceeds, Fererra attacks Cairn with a swarm of beetles; mesmerizes the unfortunate Lady Lashmore (whose fate is horrible), and sets his sights on the body and inheritance of the lovely Myra Duquesne. Throughout Ferrara controls his victims’ perception of reality, being able to provoke hallucination and delirium almost at will. Fortunately, Cairn’s father, an eminent Egyptologist, possesses esoteric knowledge that can help thwart the designs of this oily, obscene creature.

Those designs start to unfold when the younger Cairn finds himself in Cairo, where he attends a masked ball. The unseasonal hot wind blowing that night is said to signal the presence of an efreet, an evil djinn:

As if embodying the fear that in a few short minutes had emptied the garden, out beneath the waving lanterns, the flying debris, the whirling dust, pacing somberly from shadow to light, and to shadow again, advancing toward the hotel steps, came the figure of one sandaled, and wearing the short white tunic of ancient Egypt. His arms were bare, and he carried a long staff; but rising hideously upon his shoulders was a crocodile mask, which seemed to grin—the mask of Set, Set the Destroyer, God of the underworld.

But is it just a mask? Later we learn that Ferrara is also in Cairo and that the hot wind “brought a whiff of the plague from somewhere! Curiously enough, over fifty percent of the cases spotted so far are people who were at the carnival.” When Cairn tries to halt a monstrous rite deep inside a pyramid, the increasingly demonic Ferrara escapes in the shape of a huge bat and, Dracula-like, appears to be impervious to bullets. Upon returning to England, Cairn pledges his love to Myra, and soon thereafter the young woman begins to waste away. Could her sudden decline have anything to do with the exotic flowers that she dotes on and that are soon to blossom?

Brood of the Witch-Queen presents an amoral, hothouse world of near-incest, patricide, diabolical magic, ritual murder and sexual ambiguity: Ferrara ultimately declares himself to be both man and woman. Yet what are his actual origins? We learn that he was miraculously discovered as a six-months old baby in the tomb of a sorceress known as the Witch-Queen. Her beauty, it was subsequently learned, had “sent many a soul to perdition” just as “the evil beauty of her son has zealously carried on the work.” Brood of the Witch-Queen is, in fact, a xenophobe’s nightmare about the dangerous influence of—to use Kipling’s notorious phrase—“lesser breeds without the Law.” Little wonder that it opens with the strangling death of a swan named for Apollo, the god of reason and harmony. What Rohmer dramatizes is, in effect, a sneak attack on England and its values.

Guy Boothby does much the same in Pharos, the Egyptian, which I mentioned earlier, but Richard Marsh’s The Beetle—like Dracula, published in 1897—gives the theme a transgressively psychosexual dimension and deserves a mention here. An uncanny creature, of indeterminate gender, arrives in London to seek vengeance on an Englishman who has escaped from an Egyptian cult where he had been used as a sex slave. Even more than Brood of the Witch- Queen, Marsh’s horror classic undermines nearly all traditional boundaries, dissolving even the barriers between man and woman, human and insect, the living and the dead. Most noticeably, Marsh daringly passes beyond the merely titillating to depict moral, mental and erotic degradation: At least three of his characters are raped. Though overwritten in places, The Beetle is as terrifying a book as you will ever encounter.

While it might be tempting to shrug off tales of mummies and Egyptian magic as mere period pieces, in fact, they remain astonishingly contemporary. They deal with racial and religious hatred, the place of women in society, our desire for perennial youth, the relationship of modern science and ancient belief, and, surprisingly often, the question of sexual orientation. In his excellent study, The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy Roger Luckhurst further stresses that narratives about the mummy’s curse are the West’s guilt-ridden response to, or way of “acknowledging and negotiating,” its own imperialist violence in the Middle East.

While Luckhurst’s book is packed with fascinating material, its arguments and diction do make strong demands upon the non-academic reader. By contrast, the exciting stories and novels briefly described in this essay are all relatively easy to read. Yet take away their outer trappings—or perhaps I should say their outer wrappings—and you will uncover complicated and divisive issues that are with us still today. As is so often the case, there’s much more to pulp fiction than meets the eye.