Michael Dirda on mummies in pulp fiction
Wonderful to come across this new article from Michael Dirda at Barnes & Noble Review, which offers — in typical Dirda fashion — a thoroughly absorbing, insightful, and well-written treatment of a fun and fascinating subject:
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. . . .
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.
Click through to read Michael’s reflections on various mummy fictions, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth,” Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch-Queen, and Riccardo Stephens’s obscure 1912 novel The Mummy. He also mentions a couple of recent anthologies devoted to such things.
And of course, for more on everything to do with mummies in fiction and fact, you can consult my Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture.