The Lovecraft Reread

Luckily I Understood Coptic Perfectly Well That Night: Theophile Gautier’s “The Mummy’s Foot”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Theophile Gautier’s “The Mummy’s Foot” (“Le Pied de momie”), first published in the September 1840 issue of Le Musée des familles. We read the translation by Lafcadio Hearn. Spoilers ahead.

“…I placed the foot of the divine Princess Hermonthis upon a heap of papers scribbled over with verses, in themselves an undecipherable mosaic work of erasures; articles freshly begun; letters forgotten, and posted in the table drawer instead of the letter-box, an error to which absent-minded people are peculiarly liable. The effect was charming, bizarre, and romantic.”

Summary

Our narrator, a young writer in mid-nineteenth century Paris, idly enters a dusty bric-a-brac shop, hoping to find a paperweight more interesting than standard “trumpery” bronzes. Chances look good – “all ages and all nations seemed to have made their rendezvous” here, from a red clay Etruscan lamp to Chinese silks to furniture from the reigns of touts les rois Louis.

The aged dealer follows him through the crowded aisles. His shining bald pate with its aureole of white hair might have given him an air of grandfatherly kindness, if it weren’t for “the scintillation of [his] two little yellow eyes which trembled in their orbits like two louis-d’or upon quicksilver.” He lays various curiosities before narrator, who seizes on a “fragment of some antique Venus,” a foot in Corinthian bronze he supposes. But no, it’s an actual mummified foot removed from its bandages, perfectly embalmed, slender and delicate.

Ah, says the dealer. That is the foot of Princess Hermonthis, Pharaoh’s adored daughter. Wouldn’t Pharaoh be surprised to see it used as a paperweight? Why, he had a mountain of granite hollowed out for her tomb, her triple coffin gilded and covered with paintings of the Judgment of Souls, so greatly did he wish to exalt her in the land of the dead!

The strange old man talks as if he knew Pharaoh personally, narrator jests, but even he can’t be that ancient. He obtains the foot for five louis, all the money he has, and carries it home in triumph. The perfume of natron, bitumen and myrrh fills his room, still potent after four thousand years. Why not? “The Dream of Egypt was Eternity. Her odours have the solidity of granite and endure as long.”

That night, the “eyes of [his] soul” open. He dreams himself in his own bed, convinced something fantastic is about to happen. The foot of Princess Hermonthis starts leaping about like a “startled frog.” Narrator’s first displeased by his inappropriately non-sedentary paperweight, then feels “something like fear.” This totally-not-fear emotion sharpens at the sound of someone hopping across his floor to rustle his bed curtains.

They part to reveal a young girl “possessing the purest Egyptian type of perfect beauty.” Her dress is of ancient Egypt, her brow bound with gold, her bosom adorned with an idol-figurine of Isis. Narrator seems to hear again the old dealer crowing about Pharaoh’s beloved daughter. This apparition has one foot broken off at the ankle!

The girl – Princess Hermonthis –tries to seize her foot, but it eludes her. Her tears flow, and she chastises the wayward appendage: Did she not always take good care of it in life? Why should it leave her lame now?

The foot replies that it no longer belongs to her or itself. That old merchant bore her a grudge for refusing to espouse him. He had her foot stolen from her tomb, so she couldn’t appear at the reunion of the shadowy nations in the cities below. But perhaps she has five gold pieces to ransom it?

Alas, all her tomb-gold has been stolen as well!

Moved to gallantry, narrator cries out that he has never kept anyone’s foot unjustly and would feel wretched to think himself the cause of Princess Hermonthis’s troubles. Please, allow him to return what’s rightly hers.

The Princess looks at him with deepest gratitude. She refits the foot to her leg with ease, as any girl might slip on a shoe. In exchange, she puts her Isis idol on narrator’s desk. But he must also come meet her father, and receive his reward.

This makes perfect sense to narrator, so he arrays himself in a dressing gown of sufficiently pharaonic pattern and takes Hermonthis’s hand, soft and cold, “like the skin of a serpent.” They travel with arrow-speed through “a fluid and grayish expanse, in which half-formed silhouettes flitted swiftly by.” Eventually obelisks and sphinxes dominate the scene. They descend into the underworld, through endless corridors and chambers decorated with hieroglyphs and paintings, “interminable legends of granite which only the dead have time to read through all eternity.”

Their final destination is a vast hall of monstrous columns, in which sit enthroned the mummified kings of the subterranean races, with all their mummified subjects and beasts, ibixes and crocodiles and cats. Besides the pharaohs, there are the kings who reigned at the time of the great flood, and those who reigned even before the flood, even before Adam.

All rejoice to see that Princess Hermonthis is whole again, her Pharaoh father especially. He asks narrator what recompense he would ask. Possessed with the daring of dream, narrator asks for Hermonthis’s hand – in marriage, of course, with all the rest attached.

Hermonthis appears willing, but when Pharaoh learns narrator is only twenty-seven years old, he grows stern. “We must give our daughters husbands who will last well,” he says. Pharaoh will be present on the last day of the world. Hermonthis will last longer than a statue of bronze. Whereas narrator will be but scattered dust even Isis Herself could scarce recompose!

Pharaoh then wrings narrator’s hand to show his everlasting strength, and narrator wakes up, to find a friend shaking him. It’s after noon, and they have an appointment!

Narrator starts up, to see that his mummy’s foot is gone. But in its place is the idol-figurine of Isis that Princess Hermonthis left in its place.

What’s Cyclopean: Dark rulers of the pyramids and syrinxes? Did the translator mean “sphinx,” or is this some sideways reference to the Egypt/Greece connection?

The Degenerate Dutch: Leaving aside the story’s deeply orientalist premise, the villainously vengeful Jewish merchant is a particularly charming touch. He’s “rabbinical” and “cabalistic,” two words that Gautier doesn’t appear to have a clue about beyond their ethnic associations.

Mythos Making: The Mythos has deep connections to Egypt—just ask Nyarlathotep if you don’t believe us.

Libronomicon: There are hieroglyphs everywhere, but we never get to read any. Apparently only the dead have time—this explains our TBR piles.

Madness Takes Its Toll: This is a pretty sane week—narrator cracks wise through a sequence of bizarre events, yet retains enough presence of mind to react sensibly.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Europe’s attitudes toward ancient Egypt have always been paradoxical. On the one hand, exploitation: Gautier’s mummified paperweight merely echoes centuries of Jonesian artifact theft, temple graffiti, and the use of dead people as a convenient dye. (Digression: I somehow had Mummy Brown in my head as a temporary aberration of Victorian England, but Time magazine helpfully explains that it fell out of fashion in 1964 when they… ran out of mummies. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Reread.) On the other hand, awe: modern empires might dream of Egyptian persistence, but they also suspect, as Gautier’s pharaoh helpfully explicates, that they’re likely to fall short. That they’re not worthy of such an inheritance.

Orientalism is a messy thing. And this story is both a fun way to spend twenty minutes, and full of dubious-yet-totally-normal-for-its-time narrative choices. Neither the fun nor the problematicity quite rise to the level of overwhelming the other.

Award for Most Dubious Narrative Choice goes to the keeper of Ye Olde Cursed Artifacte Shoppe, who also wins an award for Most Delayed Yet Least Effective Vengeance Ever. He’s a mustache-twirling Jewish merchant, who just happens to be several centuries old. Is he supposed to be the Wandering Jew? If so, what was he doing making passes at Egyptian royalty? Not that there’s anything fraught or weirdly Oedipal about a Jew trying to marry a pharaoh’s daughter…

Putting aside the villain’s religion, he’s the all-too-familiar guy who can’t deal with taking no for an answer. Rather than engaging in run-of-the-mill violence, fortunately, he waits until Hermonthis is dead, gets a treasure-hunter to steal her foot, and sells it to some random guy off the street. Revenge is sweet! Only not, because our narrator gets the easiest heroics ever—and avoids this being a horror story about mummy-related curses—by willingly handing over the foot (so to speak) as soon as the rightful owner shows up. Then he asks to marry Hermonthis, who has a low bar for decent husbands. Her family, alas for the potentially happy couple, sets the somewhat higher bar of immortality. (Presumably just an excuse, as Dad could have easily explained the secret to narrator, and then we’d have an eerily melancholy story about a guy waiting until after death for his true love, hoping the embalmer follows his very specific instructions correctly.)

This isn’t a very Lovecraftian piece, but I can see both why Lovecraft liked it and the places where Gautier may have had an influence. Dunsany can claim the greatest part of the Dreamlands’ ancestry—but Howie obviously had a heap of mega-architecture, precious minerals, and stereotypically exotic cultures in the back of his brain, gathered from many sources. He drew on Egyptian legend (or at least legends about Egypt) many times. “Under the Pyramids” is the obvious example, but Pharaoh Nitokris gets to host feasts in “The Outsider,” and Nyarlathotep has obvious Egyptian connections—including a pharaonic servant in “Haunter in the Dark.” The long journey to Hermonthis’s dad also reminded me somewhat of the Nameless City, albeit minus the actual details of the décor. And of course, Lovecraft was no stranger to characters obsessed with immortality and permanence, either.

Poor narrator, rejected for the minor flaw of being mortal. At least he gets a nice necklace out of the bargain, and a shaggy dog (shaggy foot?) story to tell his friends at the pub.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Theophile Gautier (1811-1872) was not only a painter, poet, novelist, dramatist, ballet scenarist, and travel writer; he was also a professional critic of art, poetry, prose, theater and dance. He seems to have rubbed shoulders with most of the French luminaries from Victor Hugo to Gustave Dore. His admirers included Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Eliot, Pound, Henry James, Wilde and Proust. Oh, and later, this Rhode Island Yankee named Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft’s praise for the weird literature of France is qualified. Even de Maupassant’s great horror tales are more “the morbid outpourings of a realistic mind in a pathological state than the healthy imaginative products of a vision naturally disposed toward phantasy.” Problem is, “the French genius is more naturally suited to…dark realism than to the suggestion of the unseen.”

That serious quibble does not apply, however, to Monsieur Gautier. At last finding in Gallic literature someone who can fight in the same ring as the “inherently mystical” Northerners, Lovecraft waxes lyrical:

“It is in Théophile Gautier that we first seem to find an authentic French sense of the unreal world, and here there appears a spectral mastery which, though not continuously used, is recognisable at once as something alike genuine and profound. Short tales like ‘Avatar,’ ‘The Foot of the Mummy,’ and ‘Clarimonde’ display glimpses of forbidden vistas that allure, tantalize, and sometimes horrify; whilst the Egyptian visions evoked in ‘One of Cleopatra’s Nights’ are of the keenest and most expressive potency. Gautier captured the inmost soul of aeon-weighted Egypt, with its cryptic life and Cyclopean architecture, and uttered once and for all the eternal horror of its nether world of catacombs, where to the end of time millions of stiff, spiced corpses will stare up in the blackness with glassy eyes, awaiting some awesome and unrelatable summons.”

I’m not sure that Gautier’s vision of the Egyptian netherworld (at least as confined to “Mummy’s Foot”) is the ultimate expression of its horrors. For my five gold louis, Lovecraft makes the mummy-haunted catacombs way creepier in “Under the Pyramids.” Imagine what would happen to a Lovecraft narrator who chanced upon a genuine mummy foot in a dusty curiosity shop. The shop’s proprietor, being yellow-eyed, would turn out to be an avatar of Nyarlathotep, complete with sardonic smile. A hero of the scholar subtype would donate the foot to a museum or the Miskatonic University Archives, where it would subtly drive all who beheld it mad with dreams of benighted Egypt. Or a friend-of-evil/misguided-genius subtype wouldn’t buy the foot himself but would stand laughingly by while genius friend bought it. Later he would answer friend’s frantic summons in time to watch him take an elixir compounded from the foot and dissolve into a seething puddle of primeval protoplasm. Or putrescence. Or putrescent primeval protoplasm.

Or the debased-and-decadent-scion-of-an-ancient-race subtype might buy the foot for unspeakably degenerate purposes and end up getting kicked to bloody rags by it. Or his equally debased and decadent friend would get kicked to death, whereupon narrator would faint, reviving to hear from the shadows the shuffling giggle of embalmed toes, hence realizing he was next, after he’d written his nerve-shattered narrative, of course.

Gautier may have an authentic French sense of the unreal, as Lovecraft contends, but he also has a charmingly French sense of humor. Naturally bric-a-brac shops are sprouting up in Paris like mushrooms, what with all the petty stockbrokers affecting antique decor. Just as naturally, the most authentically antique things in most shops are the dust and spider webs. Nor is our narrator himself without amusing affectations. No commonplace paperweights for him, and when he does get a singular one, he parades and puffs about, thinking himself greatly superior to the ridiculous folk who lack bona-fide pieces of Princess Hermonthis on their desks!

It’s also evident that Gauthier’s right at home with the French Romantic aesthetic, flourishing when this story was written. Exoticism explodes all over the pages, as it does in the bric-a-brac shop, where the likes of Chinese porcelain dragons and Mexican fetishes lurk side by side. Then there’s a little “r” romance. Actually, instalove. Narrator falls for beautiful and coquettish Hermonthis enough to ask to marry her. Hermonthis falls for gallant narrator enough to make no objection to his proposal. But as happens so often in romantic tales, Daddy slams on the brakes.

Lovecraft was so little given to writing romance, he had no need in his writer’s toolbox for the Interfering Patriarch archetype. I imagine, though, that if Howard had any reservations about “The Mummy’s Foot,” narrator’s trip to see Hermonthis’s Pharaoh father must have clinched the deal for him. Here Gautier dives from the whimsical weirdness of his opening into very deep time and the subterranean kingdoms of the dead. Granted, all the mummified dead—even the grinning crocodiles—treat Gautier’s narrator with great civility, which is much more than Lovecraft’s Houdini can say. Still, it must be a psychic blow to hear how the last particles of your dust will be scattered beyond recovery, while your proposed bride will endure longer than bronze.

“The Dream of Egypt was Eternity,” Gautier’s narrator writes. Eternity requires preservation, Pharaoh says. I see Howard nod, agreeing. In his mind, one day, the great archivists of the cosmos will also nod, then make their own way to the fictive page.

 

Next week, we leave France for New Zealand in Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill.” You can find it in Dreams From the Witch House.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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