The mummy story emerges from a nineteenth century that is saturated with Egyptomania. Which is to say, of course, that it emerges very specifically from imperial Europe's troubled history with Egypt. "[S]ince this accursed Egyptian style came into fashion . . . my eldest boy rides on a sphinx instead of a rocking-horse, my youngest has a papboat in the shape of a crocodile, and my husband has built a watercloset in the shape of a pyramid and has his shirts marked with a lotus," John J. Johnston quotes from an 1805 letter to the London Morning Chronicle in his introduction to Unearthed, an anthology of classic mummy stories. Robert Southey complained in 1807 that "everything must now be Egyptian, the ladies wear crocodile ornaments, and you sit upon a Sphinx in a room hung round with mummies." Europe was never exactly unaware of Egypt, but Napoleon's invasion of the country in 1798 opened it up for European scrutiny in ways that it never had been before. Egyptology as a discipline begins with the Description de l'Égypte; nineteenth century knowledge about Egypt, whether fact or fiction, was produced in the context of, and in the service of, empire. This is the basic premise of Edward Said's Orientalism.
Which raises a question about how these two books—The Book of the Dead, an anthology of original mummy stories, and its companion volume, Unearthed, both edited by Jared Shurin—present themselves, and how they are packaged. The Book of the Dead is dedicated to Amelia B. Edwards, feminist, writer, women's suffragist, and founder of the Egypt Exploration Society. Both volumes contain introductions by a member of the EES, and both end with an advertisement for it. This shouldn't be a surprise—Jurassic London have clearly stated that these books are published in partnership with the society. But in a post-Orientalism (not, alas, post-orientalism) world, it's sometimes hard to stomach this uncritical celebration of Europeans producing knowledge about Egypt in light of how that knowledge was, and in some ways still is, put to use. It's probably worth noting at this point that as far as I can tell, all the writers in The Book of the Dead are British or American.
Fortunately, many of the best stories in the collection take as their impetus the complex, uncomfortable historical relationship between the west and Egypt. One of these is Adam Roberts's "Tollund," which is certainly aware of the power inherent in the creation of knowledge, of who gets to produce it and who has it produced about them. "Tollund" is a reversal of our expectations of a mummy story; not only is the preserved body in question a bog body in Jutland but the scientists who come to study it and have a terrible adventure in the process are named Hussein, Suyuti, el-Akkad, and el-Kafir el-Sheikh. It's not always subtle; the phrase "occidental exoticism" appears and the characters spend a lot of time sitting around discussing the inferiority of these barbaric Northerners. It doesn't need to be; a number of the stories in the collection critically examine the roots of the genre, but this blatant overturning of it delighted me.
Other stories in the collection deal with the transport of Egyptian artefacts to museums across the western world. Louis Greenberg's "Akhenaten Goes to Paris" has its title character travel to France to visit a father who is currently on display in a museum. Paul Cornell's Rameses I wakes up in a museum in Canada. Den Patrick's "All is Dust" has canopic jars stolen . . . from the British Museum. The turning of bodies into objects and the attendant undercurrent of discomfort that comes with this has been a part of the mummy tradition since its inception; fittingly, Unearthed begins with Theophile Gaultier's 1840 short story "The Mummy's Foot," which has a young man buy a disembodied foot to use as a paperweight. One of mummy fiction's most uncomfortable moments comes in Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars, when Professor Trelawney unwraps the perfectly-preserved body of the Egyptian Queen Tera. The unrolling of a mummy for an audience was a popular spectacle in the mid-nineteenth century, and once it is done Trelawney and his associates stand gloating over Tera's beautiful naked body. But also in the room is Trelawney's daughter Margaret, the physical double of Tera. As long as Margaret is present, it is impossible to entirely think of Tera as an object—and so the sense of violation does not go away.
In The Book of the Dead, Louis Greenberg's Akhenaten moves constantly between the states of person and object—unable to bluff his way through airport security as a living person he begins the story by traveling to Paris as cargo; once there he is able to hide in a museum by pretending to be one of the exhibits. In his perorations about Paris (a city he quite likes) in the guise of a living being Akhenaten is subject to multiple instances of casual racism and suggestions that he go back to where he came from—including in the Place de la Concorde, which has at its center the Luxor Obelisk. As fond as Akhenaten is of the modern world, it's clear that he is more welcome in this city when he is a thing than when he is a person.
If the museums preserve mummies as objects, we're also reminded that they can be destroyed, and even consumed. As Johnston reminds us in his introduction, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans even ingested powdered mummy as a form of medicine. Roger Luckhurst's "The Thing of Wrath" takes for its inspiration stories of rags from mummies being imported from Egypt to the USA in order to make paper for newspapers. Jenni Hill's "The Cats of Beni Hasan" is based on the use of mummified cats (tons of them were shipped to England in the nineteenth century) as fertilizer.
Two stories in the collection deal with the physical consumption of mummies. "All is Dust" has a group of old friends accidentally snort some dead mummy along with cocaine—the only one it affects is the Egyptian character who turns into a vengeful murderer. In Maria Dahvana Headley's "Bit-U-Men," a reanimated mellified man (or not a man—its gender is ambiguous throughout) allows for its body to be used in the production of American confectionery. This story, which later contains a reference to "mummy brown" ink, centers the consenting human owner of the body and in doing so invokes thousands of mummified bodies that were used in various ways without the possibility of consenting, and harks back to the tradition of mummy stories built upon the sense of unease created by the inability to wholly erase the humanity of these bodies-as-collectable/consumable-objects. "Bit-U-Men" is probably the strongest story in the collection, both in the ways it harks back to and interrogates the traditional mummy story and in its fittingly thick-as-honey prose.
Headley's story is one of many in the collection that play with that other great trope of mummy fiction—the love story. Early fictional mummies are usually female and beautiful; Gaultier's Hermonthis, for example, possesses "the purest Egyptian type of perfect beauty." Whether this was connected to a more general feminization of the Orient, or the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling (all those public mummy-unwrappings!) Victorian mummy fiction is full of the beautiful undead, whether they be beautiful and deadly (like Queen Tera, or even Rider Haggard's Ayesha) or harmless like Hermonthis or Haggard's Ma-Mee. Lou Morgan's "Her Heartbeat, An Echo" has another Egyptian princess fall in love with a modern man—a museum security guard who refuses to treat her as an object and offers to share his lunch. The susceptibility of thousand-year-old beautiful princesses towards random British men is another fine Victorian tradition, but there's something rather nice about this particular iteration of it. The eroticized female mummy takes on a different form in Michael West's rather muddled story of rape and revenge, "Inner Goddess," while David Thomas Moore's "Old Souls" adapts the reincarnated lovers trope as a retelling of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter (complete with a reference to the film, so that we know it knows it’s doing it).
Jesse Bullington's "Escape from the Mummy's Tomb" is one of the few stories that refer to later cinematic iterations of the mummy. Seth Rasul (I don’t know how common "Seth" is as a modern Egyptian name; I suspect its use in two consecutive stories in this collection has more to do with its status as an English or American name) is of Egyptian descent and the target of racist bullies at his British school. He also loves mummy movies and retreats into them when he is the target of abuse; in his head he is the mummy, a boy on whom he has a crush is a werewolf, said boy's girlfriend is a vampire. I can't help reacting rather uncomfortably to this story, which in most ways I love. It's well done; Bullington never oversimplifies the complex relationships members of minority groups can have with the media we grow up with. And yet. Part of the point of "Escape from the Mummy's Tomb" is that immigrants and minorities tend not to exist in mainstream culture, so that our relationships with the things that are conceivably "ours" can be possessive, even when we're the monsters. Perhaps when it's done this convincingly it's irrelevant that Bullington (as far as I know) has never been a queer brown kid in a white school. And yet I come back to that table of contents and think that maybe it does matter.
At the most basic level mummy stories are about dead bodies, and so about death and what you can and cannot keep holding on to. Maurice Broaddus's "Cerulean Memories" and David Bryher's "The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey" focus on the physical aspects of this; the ways in which keeping a dead body around is rather horrifying. Glen Mehn's "Henry" takes the opposite route with a focus on the virtual—if everything stays on the internet forever, how do you let go? This question of how you face the death of someone you love is at the heart of the last story in the collection, Will Hill's "Three Memories of Death." Hill's story takes the form of a philosophical debate carried out by two men over decades, and it’s quiet and elegiac; a reminder that this genre can also be intensely personal.
Much of this review seems to consist of describing the ways in which these stories adapt classic tropes. Because even where there's a clear, critical engagement with those tropes, most stories in the collection still feel very traditional. Sarah Newton's "The Roof of the World" feels like a classic Victorian adventure set in the Pamir Mountains—I'm not convinced it's a mummy story, but I like the genre enough not to mind. And despite its undercurrent of political commentary (or not "despite," since the original stories often do this too) Luckhurst's "The Thing of Wrath" is very much a cozy Victorian horror story, complete with frame narrative (abandoned midway) and bad title. I love the mummy story but a collection like this one, where the strongest pieces focus on interrogating the origins of the genre and where attempts to update it tend to feel more like window dressing than anything else, isn't much of an argument for its resurrection. Perhaps Hill's story is a fitting end to the collection, a reminder that sometimes it is necessary to let go.
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