Archaeology / Classics and pop culture / Reviews

Mummies as Monsters: Reviewing The Book of the Dead

jurassicIt’ll be obvious from even the briefest glance over my past posts here that I’ve got a strong interest in both archaeology and monsters. Slap-bang in the middle of that Venn-diagram lies (or staggers stiffly around) the Mummy. More than any other creature, perhaps, the monstrous mummy of literature and film embodies (no pun intended) that fundamental archaeological tension between artefact and person. Most potent when it concerns human remains, the transition from living, breathing person (or the daily accoutrements of a person’s life and world) to an artefact, an object of scientific study, isn’t a comfortable one. All zombies, revenants and other assorted undead play on our ambivalence towards the past, the fear that sometimes our curiosity is destructive and there are forgotten things best left buried: the past both fascinates and haunts us. The mummy is part of this ‘hauntological’ vein of monster (to use the terminology of author China Miéville in this essay), but more than any of its counterparts it’s also specifically an archaeological one. While historians and antiquaries are hardly thin on the ground in the ‘ghost stories’ of writers such as M. R. James, the mummy is inextricably situated in the context of archaeological excavation and the museum. Its floruit coincides exactly with the birth of modern scientific archaeology, with the ‘heroic age’ of excavation on a grand scale and the transition from personal collections of curiosities to publicly accessible museums as the main destination for archaeological material. It’s bound up (pun semi-intended) with public reception of this archaeological revolution and the concerns and tensions it engendered. The themes and questions mummy fiction raises – of object vs. person, of imperialism and orientalism, of class, morality and decadence, of capitalism, objectification and science – are exactly those of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

karloff-mummyAnd even as a literary genre the mummy is a historical curio, a museum-piece. While its inclusion among the early horror films of the 1930s has cemented the mummy as a ‘classic’ horror monster, it’s no longer an entirely active one. Unlike zombies or vampires or even werewolves, there’s a clear sense that the mummy story’s heyday has passed. That heyday covered around a century, beginning with Jane C. Loudon’s 1827 novel The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century and pretty much culminating in the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff. Along the way, several prominent writers contributed mummy stories: Edgar Allen Poe (‘Some Words With a Mummy’ – 1845), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (‘The Ring of Thoth’, ‘Lot No. 249’ – 1890 and 1892 respectively), Bram Stoker (The Jewel of Seven Stars, 1906), Sax Rohmer (Dr Fu Manchu Part 10: The Mummy – 1915), H. P. Lovecraft (‘Imprisoned with the Pharaohs’ – 1924), among others. In contrast, major modern contributions to the genre have been very few. It’s saying something that perhaps the most notable recent example has been the Hollywood film franchise that began with 1999’s The Mummy. Tellingly, that film is both a remake of the Karloff film, and a period piece. So why has the mummy fallen out of favour? We might no longer be in the heady days of Petrie or Lord Carnarvon, but Egypt’s pharaonic past hasn’t exactly fallen from the public eye. The problem, I think, lies in the mummy itself.

One possible reason might be that it’s too similar to other monsters, most obviously the zombie. As a character in Jesse Bullington’s story ‘Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb’ puts it, ‘Mummies are just zombies wrapped up in rags’. Zombies are everywhere these days. You don’t need me to tell you that. Modern zombies, established by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead and especially Dawn of the Dead, (as opposed to the earlier voodoo ones) are thoroughly bound up in anxieties about the alienating and objectifying effects of late capitalism: shorn of intelligence, culture or individuality, all they do is relentlessly consume. These concerns aren’t so different from those I suggested animated the mummy. So has the rise of the zombies supplanted their earlier forebear?

It’s a tempting suggestion, but one that only goes so far. The similarity between mummies and zombies is only superficial: there’s a world of difference between how the monsters actually work and the nature of their typical stories. The mummy is, for the most part, an individual – often named, often special during their lifetime; zombies are anonymous, deriving their potency from the horde. Zombies are capitalist consumers, mummies are the object of consumption. The archetypal zombie-story has the living inside a hut or room, desperately warding off undead attackers from outside; but mummies begin inside and the people are on the outside, invading their space. If anything the mummy is an inverse zombie. As has been pointed out, the plot of the Karloff movie is far more similar to Dracula than any zombie tale. I’m sure the basic resemblance between mummies and zombies has had an effect, but it can’t convincingly explain the mummy’s fall.

Let’s look instead at the politics. Mummy stories are, of course, very very orientalist. They portray the people of Egypt’s past as sinister monsters; their modern counterparts generally fare little better. A rich ancient culture is appropriated and portrayed as mysterious, frightening and uncanny, often evil. This in contrast to the rational, good and reassuring modern western world. It’s not breaking any new ground to point this out, nor to say that this is the stock-in-trade of imperialist media, from the ancient world to the present day. While intelligent writers might have pause for thought about the blatant imperialist and orientalist connotations of the mummy – in the same way that you couldn’t make a straight adaptation of Fu Manchu these days – we can’t pretend we live in some enlightened world where we don’t use cultural others for cheap villains. The politically incorrect connotations of the mummy might contribute to their decline, but I’m afraid I don’t buy it as the full story, especially since they were already dropping out of favour in the not-exactly-progressive first half of the twentieth century.

I wonder whether the mummy’s undoing (is that a pun? I don’t even know any more) is the very specificity which makes them so interesting for telling us about western attitudes to Egypt and archaeology during their heyday. The Egyptian mummy isn’t an easily transposable monster. Zombies can spring up anywhere; vampires might have a spiritual connection to central Europe, but you can set an undead bloodsucker story anywhere from Sunnydale to sparkle-town to space. Werewolves work wherever there’s a moon. But an Egyptian mummy has to come from Egypt, and they bring with them a baggage-train of pharaohs and canopic jars and hieroglyphs. Probably because Egyptian mummies are real – even if they don’t walk and threaten the living – and widely known, they’ve never become disembedded from their cultural background. Sure, you could write a mummy story that didn’t connect them with Egypt, but it would seem incongruous, odd. Is the problem with mummies that there are only so many stories you can tell about the revivified relics of Egypt’s ancient past, and that as time passes you need more and more imaginative and intelligent writers to do anything new? Imaginative and intelligent writers being just the sort likely to be bothered by orientalist associations…

All of which is effectively a lengthy preamble to account for why I was interested by the publication of The Book of the Dead last year. This anthology of new mummy stories comes from Jurassic Press and is edited by Jared Shurin, one of those responsible for the misleadingly-titled science fiction and fantasy website Pornokitsch and its well-respected Kitschie awards celebrating ‘the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic’. It was also produced in association with the Egypt Exploration Society and features an introduction from the Society’s John J. Johnstone (I hope the middle J stands for John). It’s not entirely clear what this association amounted to, but it was an intriguing enough prospect for me to be keen to see what this team could do to revive the mummy story in an imaginative and progressive way.

BoD - Mysterium_Tremendum

Garen Ewing’s illustration for ‘Mysterium Tremendum’

There are nineteen stories in the book, all from different authors. Only two were writers I’d encountered before: Paul Cornell – whose work I’ve enjoyed since his Doctor Who novels of the early 90s and who’s recently found a well-deserved wider audience with a series of cops-and-magic urban fantasy novels – and Adam Roberts, a much-heralded SF writer, critic and professor of English literature at Royal Holloway. Probably the biggest missed opportunity in this book is that none of the authors is Egyptian. It would have been very interesting to see how someone from Egypt would tackle this genre, and the absence slightly undercuts the book’s good intentions by perpetuating the nagging sense that it’s appropriating someone else’s history and mythology. The stories themselves proved to be a diverse mixed bag, ranging from the humorous – most notably Cornell’s opener ‘Ramesses on the Frontier’ (which recalled the superior Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which I heartily recommend to anyone and everyone) – to poignant offerings such as David Thomas Moore’s ‘Old Souls’ or Glen Mehn’s ‘Henry’. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), few have mummies which are straightforwardly objects of horror. Other themes from the mummy stories of yesteryear are brought to the forefront instead: romance, loss, objectification and power.

While the book promises an updated take on the mummy genre, many of the stories are period pieces. Most of these are set in the late Victorian-Edwardian golden age of mummy-literature itself. Most of these are entertaining – there weren’t any egregious clunkers in the whole book – and several were good fun. Others offered contemporary takes on the genre, generally exploring the museum context. Again, several of these were good although a couple seemed a little over-similar.

BoD_-_EscapeFromMummysTomb

Garen Ewing’s illustration for ‘Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb’

Where The Book of the Dead is most interesting is often where writers have eschewed the pyramids-and-pharaohs trappings (almost) entirely, to approach the idea of mummies and mummy fiction from a different angle. Roberts’ ‘Tollund’ is a nice example of this. Its premise – imperialist Egyptian archaeologists are stalked by a bog-body they’ve excavated in benighted and mysterious Denmark – is a lovely occidentalist inversion of the typical mummy tale, which calls to mind the tenth-century Arab writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s account of a Viking funeral. Sadly, appealing though the idea is, the execution’s somewhat weaker, increasingly running out of steam as it goes on, before culminating in a science-fictiony ending that left me cold (appropriately enough, I guess). Bullington’s memorable ‘Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb’ is likewise concerned with examining the cultural and political status of the mummy and any story that includes a line about its mummy reading Said at Cambridge gets a thumbs-up from me. Similar to ‘Tollund’ in the ‘nice-idea-but-could-have-been-executed-better’ was Sarah Newton’s ‘The Roof of the World’, about a Russian expedition to the Himalayas and their encounter with a frozen ice-body. This is the story to go to if you want a Classical connection, people (ignore its confused lines about Greek linguistic history).

The least Egyptological story of all is also probably the closest this anthology comes to out-and-out horror. David Bryher’s ‘The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey’ is a brief but affectingly weird science-fiction tale that strikes a tonally discordant note with the rest of the collection, but is none the worse for it. Of the historical stories, my favourite was ‘Bit-U-Men’ by Maria Dahvana Headley, another rather peculiar story, this time revolving around the strange but oh-so-sweet legend of the mellified man. If I were to pick out a single story as my favourite in the whole anthology, I’d probably go for Mehn’s ‘Henry’, which does an admirable job of updating the idea of a mummy in an utterly contemporary way. It takes in revolutionary Egypt, but its few pharaonic trappings are essentially window-dressing around a moving and thought-provoking story of modern life.

The Book of the Dead may not revivify the mummy genre for the twenty-first century, but it’s an engaging read with many very good stories. At its worst it’s entertaining and fun; at its best it does indeed succeed in doing something interesting and new with mummies and exploring their cultural status – and by proxy that of other ancient remains – in the modern world. It’s well worth your time, as is the website that spawned it.

A companion volume, Unearthed, reprints many classic mummy stories, including many of those I’ve mentioned in this post. I haven’t read it yet but its introduction was nominated for a 2013 British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Non-Fiction.

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4 thoughts on “Mummies as Monsters: Reviewing The Book of the Dead

  1. Great post, and this looks like a book I should check out! Query: has anyone ever written a mummy story about Peruvian mummies…?

  2. Pingback: Previously On… | Ancient Worlds

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