Once upon a time, genre fiction made much of the mummy, but in recent years, as its undead brethren have taken centre stage in the popular consciousness—all blood and brains of late—this staple of scary stories through the ages, from Bram Stoker through to R. L. Stine and the like, has as good as gone to ground.
It’s hardly difficult to imagine why. What the mummy represents is more abstract, after all, and thus markedly harder to capture than the vampire’s transgressive sexuality or the insatiable hunger of the modern zombie, so in literature and in cinema, the mummy has frequently been depicted as rather ridiculous, such that the whole concept seems—not to put too fine a point on it—kinda sorta silly.
But then, so did the prospect of Transylvanian vampires and hobbling zombie mobs until certain stories gave them a new lease of life. In The Book of the Dead, the latest anthology project out of Jurassic London—the not-for-profit small press who produced The Lowest Heaven, which impressed me immensely—nineteen authors new and old do their damndest to make the mummy relevant again, and most, indeed, succeed.
Working in collaboration with the Egypt Exploration Society, whose Vice Chair introduces the book, and with occasional illustrations by Garen Ewing, creator of The Adventures of Julius Chancer, editor and Tor.com contributor Jared Shurin has assembled in The Book of the Dead an eclectic assortment of shorts that cumulatively recast the classic narratives we have come to expect from stories out of the mummy mold.
Paul Cornell kicks the anthology off with fitting finesse in “Ramesses on the Frontier,” which chronicles the quest of a Pharoh reawakened in the modern day. Rameses’ retracing of the ancient realm of the dead, or Duat, in search of his son Seti takes him into and across North America by way of the White House, Nashville, Disneyland and Cape Canaveral. It’s fun to see the old and the new juxtaposed thusly, but be sure: The Book of the Dead goes far further.
In “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb,” Jesse Bullington parlays a monster mash of a love triangle between a vampire, a mummy and a wolfman into an affecting expose of racism in our age; David Thomas Moore’s “Old Souls” is a supremely bittersweet story about love everlasting which revolves around the chance meeting on a delayed train of a pair of kindred spirits, only one of whom remembers their reincarnated romance.
“Her Heartbeat, An Echo” by Lou Morgan tells the tale of a security guard who develops a unexpected interest in Egyptian history because of a new exhibit at the museum he works nights in: a mummified Princess, whose heartbeat he starts to hear. It’s great stuff, equal parts ripping and gripping—as is “Mysterium Tremendum” by Molly Tanzer, in which Marjorie Olenthiste, hoping to secure a look at Mrs. Quildring’s inherited collection of mummified animals, agrees to go on a date with her sump of a son. That evening they attend a rare performance by Petar Zupan, a stage magician with a difference whose ghastly plans depend upon the participation of our poor protagonist.
Next up is one of the longest stories in The Book of the Dead, and one of the most traditional, I suppose, yet “Tollund” by Adam Roberts is also one of the anthology’s best and most developed. It’s about a party of archaeologists invited to a the site of an excavation in Jutland in the year 1333. There, the boffins abroad begin to turn into bags of bloody mush by way of a sci-fi twist that’s typical of Roberts, really; which is to say, typically brilliant.
“All is Dust” by Den Patrick poses a question of eternal interest: what would happen if you snorted some mummy dust? The infatuation of his main character—a metropolitan policeman—with Amunet Kebechet, his unrequited crush, encourages our involvement emotionally as well as our intellectual curiosity.
Patrick’s brief narrative is neat, no doubt, but “The Curious Case of the Werewolf That Wasn’t, The Mummy That Was, and The Cat in the Jar” takes the cake. In addition to bearing the best title of all The Book of the Dead’s short stories, Gail Carriger’s narrative is one of the standouts of the entire affair. I haven’t read any of the Parasol Protectorate books, but I’m keen as can be now, if this terrific tale of a mummified werewolf is any indication of their greatness.
As with any anthology, there’s the odd disappointment. “The Cats of Beni-Hasan” by Jenni Hill takes the form of a prolonged conversation between Elizabeth’s dog Monty and Dr. Cricklewood’s cat, and though the narrative has its charms, it was, I fear, a little much for me. Meanwhile I simply wasn’t convinced by the characters of Maurice Broaddus’ “Cerulean Memories,” which revolves around “the caretaker of a grove of memories, his and others. He kept them like a scrapbook, taken out and revisited, an echo chamber of death.” Alas, its execution is no match for its promising premise. The same goes for “Inner Goddess” by Michael West—an interesting twist on the mummy mythos focussing on the feitishisation of the preserved dead that descends, in the end, into a rote revenge fantasy—whilst “Henry” by Glen Mehn, which concerns itself with a dotcom coder who uses Facebook to bring a man back from beyond, is a little overlong.
The rest of the stories in The Book of the Dead are uniformly excellent. Set “before the winter of the year 1900, at the end of a tumultuous decade in which a great fervid spirit seemed to have been conjured in the Russian soul,” Sarah Newton’s “The Roof of the World” describes an ill-fated expedition into an ice cave in search of Eden, where—impossibly—the party find an immortal man, named not Adam but Iksander. This is before they start dropping like flies, of course.
“The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey” is a disturbing sci-fi narrative by David Bryher which begins and ends with skin-crawling body horror. For what it is, it’s tremendously successful, as is the magnificent “Bit-U-Men” by Maria Dahvana Headley. This multi-generational affair about man’s love for honeyed mummy—I kid you not—is another of the anthology’s standouts.
Similar in premise to Lou Morgan’s more human contribution, “Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies (Rooms 62-3)” by Jonathan Green is a touch perfunctory, perhaps, but nevertheless edifying; Roger Luckhurst’s “The Thing of Wrath” is a sort of Sherlockian murder mystery with surprising ties to the business of literature. By far the funniest of the whole bunch is “Akhenaten Goes to Paris” by Louis Greenberg, who makes much of a mummy’s determined efforts to attend an important meeting with a former family friend. Before that, though, he has to make it through passport control…
It falls to Will Hill to bring The Book of the Dead to a curiously beautiful, if gruesome conclusion. “Three Memories of Death” describes the life and times of Anum, a boy in the beginning who, as the years pass, rises through the ranks of the Wetyw: the masked men in charge of wrapping the dead in the fashion of the past. Hill’s emotional story is both reverent and redolent of the era in the end; a more appropriate note for this anthology to end on I can’t imagine.
Shrouded in history and mystery, complete with curses, canopic jars and a surprising quantity of cat-fancying, The Book of the Dead is as ambitious an anthology as The Lowest Heaven, and every bit as successful as said. I was no expert before, and I’m not now, but I did learn an awful lot about ancient Egypt reading it—plus I had a damn fine time doing so. As Adam Roberts reminds us:
Egypt is not just a piece of land. Egypt is the inventor of civilisation… The strange thing is that this country of great history and unsurpassed civilisation is nothing but a thin strip along the banks of the Nile… This thin strip of land created moral values, launched the concept of monotheism, developed arts, invented science and gave the world a stunning administration. These factors enabled the Egyptians to survive while other cultures and nations withered and died.
There are many other lessons to be learned by way of The Book of the Dead, not least the fact that suddenly, I’m in the mood for mummies. But what do I know? I’m an amateur. So let me leave you with the wise words of an actual expert. Take it away, John J. Johnston:
It seems appropriate, at this juncture, to deliver a warning as you prepare to enter The Book of the Dead. Egyptology in fiction has always been a somewhat strange beast, often on little more than nodding terms with the discipline in the real world. […] Mummy fiction, whether literary or cinematic, has a long and dishonourable tradition of getting certain of its facts wrong; it’s part of the fun and facts should never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good tale… and be in no doubt, these are very good tales.
Be prepared, therefore, to shudder, smile, shed a tear, and even lose some sleep, for together, each of the contributors to this particular “Book of the Dead” have accomplished that most incredible of achievements: they have enabled the mummy to live again.
The Book of the Dead is available October 29th from Jurassic London.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.