RETURN OF THE MUMMY: PART ONE
Egyptomania -- and, by extension, a fascination with mummies as well as all things Egyptian -- has been part of Western culture since the time of the ancient Greeks. With Universal's The Mummy opening in May and two more mummy movies slated for U. S. release later this year, we may soon be (again) wrapped up in horrific visions of the vengeful walking dead and pharaonic curses.
It's suitable that the return of the mummy as a horror icon is a cinematic reemergence: our popular concept of the mummy as a monster comes primarily from the screen instead of literature. Images from the Universal films of the 1930s and 1940s and their take-offs -- including the Hammer Films of the fifties and sixties -- are carved as indelibly as fake Hollywood hieroglyphs in the prop pseudo-stone of our horror-loving psyches. Even though the films have now influenced the written word, like most Hollywood motifs the concept and the basic stories themselves were originally taken from literature. We'll be exploring the myth of the "ancient Egyptian curses" next month, but here in Episode One let's look at the literary roots of The Mummy and its kin.
The new film, The Mummy , is a "re-imagining" of the classic 1932 Universal Pictures movie that starred Boris Karloff (fresh from his appearance as the monster in Frankenstein.) Although not the first mummy movie, it is certainly the most famous and influential of the three dozen or so that have been made. In brief, Karloff portrayed a high priest, Imhotep, who had been buried alive in ancient times as a punishment for the unholy act of trying to bring his love, the Princess Anckesenamon, back to life after her death. His tomb is discovered by modern archeologists and he is inadvertently brought back to life by the reading of an incantation from a magical scroll. The plot takes up a decade later and centers around the efforts of the revivified priest -- who becomes the mysterious Cairo merchant Ardath Bey -- to be reunited with his lost love. He aids in the discovery of her intact tomb then discovers Anckesenamon's spirit inhabits the body of the beauteous Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).
The Mummy's themes of romance and reanimation are central to our twentieth century image of the mummy as a horror archetype. A doomed dark romance linking the present to the past can easily be seen as a metaphor for our fascination with ancient Egypt itself. As much as we enjoy this sheerly sentimental spirit, there is something creepy about the dead past invading the living present -- and, of course, we know that pairings between such couples just never result in a happy ending.
The original The Mummy really didn't dwell on the other recurring mummy horror theme -- curses -- but the film did include a death curse for anyone who opened the casket containing the magical Scroll of Thoth. Moreover, the movie was a reflection of the tremendous public interest in ancient Egypt that had been created by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. An entirely fictional curse was strongly associated with that discovery and became part of the popular concept of mummies and permeated the atmosphere, if not the story, of the film.
Although ancient Egyptians occasionally carved a warning of sorts to discourage contemporary tomb robbers, the idea of future defilers of tombs being destroyed by reanimated mummies had no role in ancient Egyptian culture. The basic idea of being magically cursed for disturbing a tomb dates to the seventh century when Muslim Arabs conquered the land. Nor did Egyptians believe in the physical resurrection of mummies, reincarnation, or spirit possession. As with the romantic aspect of these tales, it was European writers who were responsible for turning it all into something horrifically, if usually melodramatically, memorable.
The earliest recorded scary story involving a mummy was published in 1699 by a Frenchman, Louis Penicher, in Traité des embaumemments selon les anciens et les modernes. More than a century later the decipherment of hieroglyphs provided writers with more fuel for their fiction.
The first known first mummy story in the English language, Mummy! Or A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, was a novel by Jane Webb Loundun. Published in 1827 soon after Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, it shares its theme of a reanimated being. In it, civilization is morally bankrupt and on verge of collapse in this science fictional London of 2126 . The resurrected mummy of King Cheops, in an effort to set his own corrupt past right, sets about restoring the economic, moral, and social stability of the twenty-second century.
Perhaps surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe's single mummy tale, "Some Words with a Mummy" was not horrific at all. Published in 1845 in American Weekly Review, the farcical story was based on the then-popular mania for unwrapping mummies.
Theophile Gautier's novel The Romance of the Mummy (1856) offered the first historically accurate story set in ancient Egypt and was also the first to introduce the romantic element of falling in love with a mummy. His story, "The Mummy's Foot," (1863) explored the romantic theme as well as the magical properties of mummies. Iras, A Mystery, a 1896 novel by H. D. Everett is an early example of a reanimated mummy as an object of love rather than frightening, vengeful creature.
"Lot No. 249," an 1892 story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been the first use of a revivified mummy as a sinister character. A mummy, acquired at an auction along with its case (thus the "lot number" of the title), is brought back to life and sent out to murder people. In his earlier (1890) story, "The Ring of Thoth," Doyle employed the theme of lovers united across millennia. as well as featuring two ancients who drank a potion to become immortal. These melodramatic thrillers were riding the crest of late nineteenth century mania for all things Egyptian, a mania that was also fed with similar work like Guy Boothby's novel Pharos the Egyptian (1899) and Sax Rohmer's later mummy stories.
In 1906 Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, provided inspiration for much future fiction and many movies when he became the first to connect revivified ancient Egyptian female royalty with a living modern-day heroine. In his novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars, a queen's tomb is discovered and her soul inhabits the body of the beautiful daughter of an Egyptologist as she awaits full resurrection via a ruby containing seven seven-pointed stars. Algernon Blackwood's much more interesting story, "The Nemesis of Fire" (1908) presumably used Stoker's rather flawed novel as its basis.
Although the discovery in 1922 and subsequent exploration of Tutankhamen's tomb -- which took ten years-- fueled the public's fascination with ancient Egypt and resulted in many mummy novels and stories, it also had a sobering effect. After the widely publicized autopsy of the mummy, the reality of a mummy as desiccated flesh and bones became fixed in public's mind. The image of the mummy, which had been used in advertising and made fun of in popular songs, was no longer treated in a lighthearted manner.
Once Karloff's character of Imhotep invaded the public consciousness and subsequent films added to the legend, film began influencing literary mummification. One of the better mummy novels of the last few decades was actually a 1977 novelization of the movie The Mummy by horror master Ramsey Campbell writing as Carl Dreadstone. Another, Charles Grant's fast-paced The Long Night Of The Grave (1986), has been compared to watching a colorful Hammer film. The excellent Cities of the Dead (1988) by Michael Paine is a chilling, well-researched, atmospheric novel written in the voice of Howard Carter. Supposedly excerpted from dairies written by Carter in 1903-1904 long before his famous discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, this book doesn't deal with the walking dead, but with the mysteries of life and life after death.
By far the best-selling of all the mummy books is Anne Rice's 1989 The Mummy, or Ramses The Damned. Rice returns to the theme of immortal love and lust with a heavy hand that makes this novel more of a steamy romance than a horror story -- although the idea of Ramses the Great coming to life as a blue-eyed hunk is pretty scary. The book, although immensely popular, has no resolution and more or less promises a sequel that has yet to be forthcoming. Tanya Huff's Blood Lines (1993) features romance and many of what are now standard plot elements.
Three anthologies -- The Mummy Walks Among Us, edited by Vic Ghadalia (1971), Mummy Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (1990), and Mummy!, edited by Bill Pronzini (originally 1980, later published as part of the Tales of the Dead omnibus in 1986) -- are among the very few compilations of short mummy fiction published. There have been comic books based on the mummy myth as well, including those based on the original film, an "erotic" comic, and a fancy twelve-issue limited series based on the Anne Rice book.
There are many mummy-related fiction titles available for readers under the age of twelve. R. L. Stine has taken the theme on twice in the Goosebumps series and once already in the new Goosebumps 2000 series; The Eek! Stories to Make You Shriek and Are You Afraid of the Dark? series both have mummy books; TV twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen confront a mummy in their series as do the children of the Black Cat Club, the Sweet Valley Kids, the Bailey School Kids, Mercer Meyer's Critter Kids, Graveyard School, the Young Indiana Jones, and the Three Investigators series. Even Scooby-Doo and Garfield deal with mummy curses in tie-in books. Outside of series titles, books for young adults by writers like John Bellairs, Kathleen Karr, Cynthia Voigt, and Barbara Steiner are also in print.
Egyptophilic adults fare better in the murder/suspense genre than in horror these days. Elizabeth Peters' wonderful turn-of-the-century heroine Amelia Peabody uncovers ancient Egyptian tombs and murder mysteries along with her husband, Radcliffe Emerson, and their extraordinary son, Ramses. Historically and archeologically accurate (Peters is a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz who holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology) these books -- The Ape Who Guards the Balance, Seeing a Large Cat, The Hippopotamus Pool, The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog, The Deeds of the Disturber, The Mummy Case, Lion in the Valley, The Curse of the Pharaohs, and Crocodile on the Sandbank -- only tangentially deal with mummies, but are witty, tightly plotted mysteries with at least an occasional thrill and chill. Among her many titles, Mertz also wrote (as Peters) The Jackal's Head and (as Barbara Michaels) Search the Shadows -- both suspenseful romantic thrillers with Egyptian themes.
Lynda S. Robinson (another writer with a scholarly Egyptological background) has set a series of mysteries in eighteenth dynasty Egypt during the time of Tutankhamen. She completely avoids Hollywood clichés and worn melodrama about ancient Egypt, recreating instead her interpretation of a culture obsessed with death and corpses. The series includes Drinker of Blood, Eater of Souls, Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing, Murder at the God's Gate, and Murder in the Place of Anubis (which centers around a murder committed in mummification workshop.
Will horror lit ever see a resurrection of the mummy mythos? Certainly the vampire legend is endlessly re-worked effectively (as well as ineffectively) by modern writers; the werewolf, too, has found new interpretations. Interest in ancient Egypt is still strong and modern scientific analysis has added a wealth of information that writers of suspense, mystery, romance, and historical novels have fruitfully drawn upon. But, for the most part, modern horror writers seem to have been willing to allow the mummy and its aspects of magic, myth, and monster to rest in peace.