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Unwrapping a Disappointing Tomb Tome

By Paula Guran

[First published in another form by Universal Studios HorrorOnline: April 2001]

[NOTE: This isn't exactly a review, but it's not an article or commentary either. It's in this category because it's probably closer to a review.]

Berkley Publishing has upheld the not-so-grand tradition of exploiting mummy mythology with its April release of anthology INTO THE MUMMY'S TOMB -- just in time to grab some of the interest generated by the May 4 release of Universal's THE MUMMY RETURNS.

I'd applaud the effort -- if a little more effort had been made. Instead of a top tomb tome full of thrills, chills, and mummymania, editor John Richard Stephens resurrects a moldy compendium of less than spectacular non-fiction and fiction. A ludicrous introduction explains a bit about ancient Egyptian -- a phrase the insists upon styling as "Ancient Egyptian" -- mummies and refers to hieroglyphs as "hieroglyphics." After going over the usual curse stories, "the truth" about such is then revealed. Ho-hum and a canopic jar of schlock.

Mummies -- and readers -- deserve better.

Book Cover The idea of including nonfiction at first seems to be a good one, after all, there's some very interesting Egyptological writing. A good example is the oft-reprinted tale of Howard Carter's opening of the tomb of Tutanhkamen (written with A.C. Mace) and Stephens includes this still awe-inspiring archaeological article. The rest of INTO THE MUMMY'S TOMB's nonfiction does not fare so well. Stephens gets off to a bad start with the unfortunate essay, "The Malevolence of Ancient Egyptian Spirits" by otherwise distinguished Egyptologist Arthur Weigall. This infamous piece -- written in rather purple prose and leaving open the possibility of the supernatural -- is presented without proper historical context. (Weigall produced it as part of his 1924 book TUTAHNKAMEN AND OTHER ESSAYS to grab some of Howard Carter's glory and it helped fuel the "mummy's curse" absurdity of the time.) A trilogy of excerpts by "Various Egyptologists" grouped under the title "Raiding Mummies' Tombs" is uninspired. The inclusion of Mark Twain's "The Majestic Sphinx" is inexplicable as it has nothing to do with either mummies or tombs. At least the short Rudyard Kipling extract has something to do with tombs.

As for the fiction, INTO THE MUMMY'S TOMB's first selection is literary oddity "Lost in a Pyramid, Or The Mummy's Curse" (1869) a short piece of fiction by Louisa May Alcott. The editor notes Alcott is "largely remembered for her children's literature" and that her stories like this one "are extremely difficult to find today, but I have been able to locate the following story involving the mummy of an Ancient [sic] Egyptian sorceress." Actually, Dr. Dominic Montserrat of London's Open University "rediscovered this forgotten work in the periodicals collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C." and publicized it a few years back. From the 1840s to the late 1860s Alcott wrote short stories full of ghosts, naughty women, mysterious doings, dope fiends, and other sensational elements. These were published in various periodicals either anonymously or pseudonymously and provided needed income for the author. This story, although far from Alcott's best work, is an interesting example of popular Victorian magazine fiction and further substantiates the era's fascination with "mummy curses."

Book Cover Another famous American writer is represented with the high pulp-style "The Vengeance of Nitrocris." Written by a sixteen-year-old Thomas Lanier (later better known as "Tennessee") Williams, it was published in Weird Tales in 1928. Unfortunately, Williams talent has yet to bloom, but it, too, is typical of its time. For some reason Stephens contends in his introduction, "It is based on a true story." Whether the teen-aged writer knew it or not, Stephens should know that nothing much is known of the historic Nitocris who ruled at the end of Egypt's 6th dynasty (c. 2180 BCE). Nitocris is mentioned by both Herodotus and Manetho as a queen, but no identification with any historical pharaoh has been established. The young Williams based his story on the highly unlikely events reported by Herodotus:

"She, to avenge her brother (he was king of Egypt and was slain by his subjects, who then gave Nitocris the sovereignty) put many of the Egyptians to death by treachery. She built a spacious underground chamber; then, with the pretence of inaugurating it, but with quite another intent in her mind, she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have had the most complicity in her brother's murder; and while they feasted, she let the river in upon them by a vast secret channel. This was all that the priests told of her, except that when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, to escape vengeance."
And, unless you count the "howling waters of death" or the queen's suffocating boudoir as sepulchers, the story features neither mummies or tombs.

Stephens also pulls out the rest of the to-be-expected-mummy-tales:

  • "Under the Pyramids: Ghostwritten for Harry Houdini by H. P. Lovecraft in 1924, this story was published in Weird Tales that same year as "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs." It was reprinted July 1939 as "Under the Pyramids." You can read it online.
  • "Smith & the Pharaohs": This H. Rider Haggard novella was initially serialized in The Strand Magazine December 1912 through February 1913. Stephens misses an opportunity to point out (as Lin Carter did in the 70s) that Haggard "wrote at the dawn of the golden age of the adventure story" as well as the "heroic age of archaeology." Archeological discoveries "had aroused in the reading public an immense curiosity concerning the ancient world. Haggard's eerie romances of the lost world of antiquity were just what the public wanted." Haggard went a bit further and wound up inventing "a new type of fantasy adventure for which the term 'the lost race novel' was later coined." (This story, too, can be found on the Web.)
  • "Some Words With a Mummy": Edgar Allan Poe used the mummy for social starire in this 1845 tale. A mocking of the Egyptomania and "progressive" science of the time (and more), it is not in the least horrific or mysterious. Not that Stephens notices in his full-page focus on Poe's well-known biographic details. (This story is also online at and many other URLs.)
  • An excerpt THE MUMMY OR RAMSES THE DAMNED: This, of course, got Anne Rice's name on the cover. It's a book I always thought was campy and not supposed to be taken seriously. Evidently some people take it seriously.
  • "The Death-Ring of Snefru": Out of Sax Rohmer's many mummy-themed stories, Stephens chose this "modern" (1917) adventure. "Valley of the Sorceress," set at a haunted tomb of an ancient queen or one of the chapters that made up BROOD OF THE WITCH QUEEN, in which a child mummy comes back to life, might have done just as well, or better.
  • An abridged version of THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS -- Stephens says the Bram Stoker novel "has fallen in to unfortunate obscurity." It has? It's more obscure than DRACULA, yes, but it deserves to be. There are currently at least three versions available including Tor's 1999 edition. So much for obscurity.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lot #249," a ubiquitous revivified mummy on the rampage tale from 1892. Doyle, by the way, was directly responsible for starting the "Curse of King Tut" story. How he was involved in briefly explained in the earlier Horror Online essay "Return of the Mummy: Part Two - Curses!" --- (This story is on the Web, too.)
What's left of INTO THE MUMMY'S TOMB? Another miss and three hits. The miss is a story from around 300 BCE -- originally translated by Egyptologist James Henry Breasted and liberally rewritten by Stephens -- about a spirit-possessed woman. (Right. No mummies. No tombs.) The hits are Agatha Christie's "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," Ray Bradbury's "Colonel Stonesteel's Genuine Homemade Truly Egyptian Mummy," and "The Locked Tomb Mystery" by Elizabeth Peters.

Book Cover Christie's Hercule Poirot debunks a supposed curse and the author uses the story -- published in 1924 during the height of "curse-omania" -- to make the point that tales of "vengeance of a bygone king" are "contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought. Christie was married to an archeologist (mentioned by Stephens) and spent long periods living at the digs (not mentioned).

Bradbury's story is charming, nostalgic, Midwestern, and all about how imagination and a mummy can defeat boredom. It was first published in 1981 by OMNI and although it's not top-notch Bradbury, it's still worthwhile.

Elizabeth Peters is one of Barbara Mertz's pen names. She has a Ph.D. in Egyptology and Egypt and artifacts of the ancient world frequently pop up in her bevy of romance and suspense novels as written as Peters or as Barbara Michaels. Her mystery series featuring Victorian feminist-Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson (and family) are historically accurate, hysterically funny, and amazingly adventurous. Stephens finally hit paydirt by finding a Peters short story that presents a classic "locked room" mystery with the historical fourteenth century BCE Amenhotep Sa Hapu as detective. As Stephens says in his introduction, "...of all the stories in this book, this one is probably the most historically accurate.

What else should be in a book like this? It would have been nice to include some original new fiction, but that was probably out of the budgetary question. We'll stick to reprint material.

Of the nineteenth century offerings, perhaps inclusion of Theophile Gautier's romantic "The Mummy's Foot" (1863) would have been nice. Probably would not want many more of the old pulp stories, but certainly "The Eyes of the Mummy" by Robert Bloch (Weird Tales, April 1938) should be there. (Bloch was first drawn to picking up a copy of Weird Tales in 1927 by an "Egyptian motif of the cover plus the appeal of the word Weird in the magazine's title." He was greatly interested in Egyptian mythology.) I'd also like to read British author Dennis Wheatley's "A Life for a Life" (1943).

Then there are more recent stories -- the Rice excerpt and the Peters story, both from 1989, are the most recent of INTO THE MUMMY'S TOMB -- like Ed Gorman's "Masque," and Joe R. Lansdale's "The Princess" (both 1990). Speaking of Lansdale, his novella "Bubba Ho-Tep" (1994) is the wildest mummy story of all time and an absolute mummy-must-read. There are even more recent stories --"The Chapter of Coming Forth by Night" by Lois Tilton and Noreen Doyle (Realms of Fantasy, February 2000) and Tim Waggoner's "Anubis Has Left the Building" (MORE MONSTERS FROM MEMPHIS, 1998) -- that might make the grade.

Kim Newman's 1999/2000 novella "Seven Stars" -- a collection of linked stories inspired, in part, by Stoker's novel -- is the one of the most brilliant literary escapades ever to include mummies. It follows the cursed "Jewel of Seven Stars" through eight episodes and a few thousand years. After causing the biblical plagues of ancient Egypt , the gem next shows up in 1897 in a mummy at the British Museum. The stone and the story get farther and farther away from mummies and weirder and weirder in the postmodern-pulp and eventually lands in the 21st century.

I'm sure there's more. And that's the point -- this anthology offers no thrills, no chills, and the back cover copy is the most imaginative thing about it. It wouldn't have taken any ancient magic to unearth some real treasures -- just a little digging.

Edited by John Richard Stephens
Berkley / $14/ 352 p

Ypun might want to read RETURN OF THE MUMMY: PART ONE and RETURN OF THE MUMMY: PART TWO -- CURSES!. The first article tells a bit about the mummy as a horror icon; the second debunks the "mummy curse" myth. Both were written for HORROR ONLINE when THE MUMMY debuted. (A fun film, but as full of historical mistakes as every other film involving mummies. The errors are numerous and obvious. There are several Web sites that list these. You might try reading at least one such list.) She looks forward to THE MUMMY RETURNS -- the occassion for which the above was written -- but doesn't expect historical accuracy.

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.