The Resurrection of an Ancient Icon: The Book of the Dead and Unearthed

To borrow a quote from Peter Cushing’s Egyptologist in Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (UK 1959), arguably the mummy film par excellence: “I suppose the greater part of my life has been spent among the dead.” So, my involvement in Jurassic London’s two volumes of mummy fiction should probably have come as no great surprise. The surprise comes in the serendipitous collaboration, the first of its kind, with the venerable Egypt Exploration Society, of which I have the honour of being Vice Chair. Founded in 1882, this learned society was established in order to preserve and protect the archaeology of Egypt through excavation, recording, and publication.

The Society’s founder, a Victorian novelist, Amelia Blandford Edwards, was troubled by the looting and casual destruction of sites and monuments she witnessed during a lengthy sojourn there and following the publication of her best-selling travel memoir, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, in 1877, she made it her mission to involve professional Egyptologists and interested enthusiasts alike in the work of the Society. To this day, the Society continues to engage with the entire spectrum of those with a passion for ancient Egypt. Although her fiction never directly addressed ancient Egypt, Amelia published a number of fantastical and macabre short stories and I am convinced that she would have approved wholeheartedly of Jurassic London’s efforts to bring the Society to a larger audience, through its two latest publications.

The first of these, The Book of the Dead is, surprisingly, given mummy fiction’s lengthy history, the first ever anthology of specially commissioned mummy fiction. Nineteen new and previously unpublished tales are presented in a stunning hieroglyph-embossed limited edition hardback, which has, itself, been ‘mummified’ and stamped with the seal of the Egypt Exploration Society. It also contains a number of stunning pen and ink illustrations by the award winning illustrator and graphic novelist Garen Ewing. Happily, as limited editions always sell quickly, it is also available in both paperback and e-book editions.

As a companion volume, Unearthed resurrects eleven classic mummy tales written between 1826 and 1906 and includes the first reprint of Herbert Crotzer’s 1898 short story “The Block of Bronze,” a somewhat frenetic piece about a voracious dwarf mummy. In addition to the stories themselves, there is a lengthy introductory essay, which places not only the tales presented but mummy fiction, more generally, within its cultural and historical contexts.

Tales of living mummies have existed, in one form or another, since Egypt’s Ptolemaic Period (332-31BC) from which time we have the tale of Prince Khamwaese who battles the deceased sorcerer Naneferkaptah in his tomb. Of course, the revived sorcerer is no bandaged monstrosity but a perfectly normal, albeit immensely powerful, human being: the Egyptians would not have envisaged anything else, the mummified remains representing only one element of an individual.

Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the public and in particular the upper classes throughout Europe and the United States became surprisingly accustomed to encountering mummies, which were regularly unwrapped in vast lecture halls and more frequently at society gatherings. Whilst they did not walk, at the conclusion of the ‘entertainment’ they were often propelled onto their feet—if they were strong enough, which many were not—in order to share the public applause with their unroller, who was frequently a society surgeon or an acclaimed anatomist.

However, these poor, denuded remnants of mummified humanity failed to pack the punch craved by a sensation-seeking public. So, in 1827, a young Jane Webb, writing as a means of paying the family debts, wrote the first modern mummy story, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-second Century—which is, to boot, an early science fiction novel set in the year 2127, in which characters travel by high-speed hot air balloon.

However, it is not until the end of the nineteenth century that mummy-fiction takes a more recognisable form in Arthur Conan Doyle’s two stories, “The Ring of Thoth” and more particularly “Lot No. 249.” The latter would inspire generations of filmmakers with its gigantic but emaciated partially-bandaged killer, stalking the leafy lanes of twilit Oxford.

By 1903, Bram Stoker added the amoral sorceress Queen Tera to the burgeoning panoply of fictional mummies, in The Jewel of Seven Stars. Her terrible beauty perfectly preserved for millennia as she influenced temporal events from her coffin, preparing for physical resurrection in Edwardian England.

As a result of these three literary works, and the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, mummy fiction was to find its most enduring medium in the cinema, where the lumbering, bandage-wrapped monstrosity rapidly assumed iconic status. Although Boris Karloff appears only briefly in Karl Freund’s The Mummy (US, 1932) as the mummified Imhotep, his image— skilfully created by Jack P Pierce and a quantity of Fuller’s earth—imprinted itself on the minds of audiences throughout the world. Since then, cinematic mummies have infested the public imagination with varying degrees of success and have spread into television, cartoons, and advertising. The revived mummy has developed a life of its own, outside of literature and film, being instantly recognisable throughout the world, although moving ever further away from the reality of Egypt’s ancient dead, preserved and wrapped for eternity.

However, the character’s cinematic and cultural ubiquity meant that the literary mummy was largely eschewed, with slight but notable exceptions—Robert Bloch, Anne Rice—as authors found the mummy and its surrounding tropes increasingly difficult to address seriously.

It is, therefore, particularly heartening to see the mummy return to its literary roots in The Book of the Dead, which treats the character with the utmost seriousness, employing twenty-first century sensibilities to examine in some depth the history and motivations of this most iconic but frequently forgotten horror icons.

In addition to tales of outright horror and suspense The Book of the Dead contains works, which pack an emotional punch, examining themes of loss and recollection and others, which will raise a smile. Ancient kings mingle with sorcerers and feline deities, while other stranger, more unexpected figures lurk in the shadows of the tomb in tales reaching from ancient Egypt to the far-flung depths of space. The Book of the Dead is an important and enthralling collection which truly resurrects the mummy for the twenty-first century.

Similarly, Unearthed, much like the discipline of Egyptology itself, reminds us of what we have forgotten or thought we had lost forever, excavated, restored, contextualised, and presented anew.

The ancients were only too aware of the power of the written word, so lock the door, draw up a chair and open these books of the dead, leaf through their treasures, be dazzled by their art and prepare to be chilled…

John J. Johnston is Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society. He has lectured extensively on Egyptology and the reception of ancient Egypt in popular culture and has contributed to the DVD releases of two gloriously restored Hammer mummy films. He is co-editor of Narratives of Egypt and the Ancient Near East: Literary Linguistic Approaches (Peeters, 2011), A Good Scribe and an Exceedingly Wise Man: Studies in honour of W.J. Tait (Golden House, In press) and Unearthed (Jurassic London, 2013).


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