There is no denying that Horror as a genre is on the move and its monsters are changing with the times. One can’t swing a dead bat in the bookstore without hitting a Vampire novel, a Werewolf saga or a Zombie apocalypse. But what one can’t find much of in today’s literary landscape are Mummy stories. What has happened to our Egyptian star? Why are contemporary writers loathe to re-tell the tale of the Mummy?
Old Mummy, New Wrapping
I confess to being a Mummy fan, largely due to Boris Karloff and some particularly artistic Hollywood lighting. But I also appreciate the Mummy from a writer’s viewpoint: the possibilities are infinite. Paradoxically, this is not because of the Mummy’s literary placement in an historically less-enlightened time of our past and the subsequently implied creative liberty; rather, it is precisely because of what we now know about Egypt and mummies in general. There is a writer’s challenge in operating within the revised lens of historical analysis that hovers over newer research on Ancient Egyptians. Yet it also beckons and invites the creative scrutiny of Horror writers and their Muses worldwide. It is this new historically based criteria that has threatened the popularity of the old tales while making the writing of new ones a definitive challenge. Even mummies themselves are no longer a purely Egyptian phenomenon.
Mummy stories today carry with them a responsibility to conform to historical facts suggested by the original fiction that cannot always be substantiated. We’ve made up stuff for so long, truth is now a bit of an impediment. We’ve twisted supposition, and overlaid our own cultural fears and expectations upon perfect strangers under cover of “the exotic.” We have historically presumed that our readers either cannot know – or do not care to discover – any obscure truths about a foreign culture with its curious and sometimes culturally repellant (albeit misunderstood) activities. Mystery and ignorance was our creative “cover of darkness” – a pretense still awkwardly utilized today in American fiction’s sporadic tendency to evoke Native American and other “primitive” traditions in literary “pinches” creating “practices” or “beliefs” that have no foundation in truth in order to carry weak plots. But times are changing, the world is shrinking; and where the Mummy literary tradition is concerned, writers have no choice but to change with it.
For example, we now know that Egyptian culture never supported the ‘belief’ in the reanimation of their dead (in any era) and were not wont to carve curses into their tombs other than to protect the interred against the entry of the unpurified (Stephens ix,x, xi,xxii). There is speculation that the idea of the curse came from invading Arabs in 641 AD who contributed their suppositions and fears of tampering with the dead to the mythology, or that it resulted from simple misinterpretation of blessings inscribed on tombs as seen by early excavators. In fact, the Ancient Egyptians expected routine visitors to tombs performing routine maintenance (xi). Neither were the dead bodies expected to “walk”; the mummification process was to enable resurrection in the afterlife…having more in common with the biblical resurrection of Jesus than Zombies. The “Opening of the Mouth Ceremony” – performed at the end of the mummification process, “was meant to restore the body’s ability to see, hear, eat speak and walk” as part of that spiritual resurrection – and if it wasn’t purely spiritual, it would have been an impediment to remove any organs as was done in the mummification process (ix ). “In fact there are no records in archaeology that the ancient Egyptians ever considered such a possibility” as reanimation; the mummified body was a funerary technique, the body “meant for use in the afterlife – not for re-use on this earth; it served as the link between the physical self and the ka (the spirit)”…(Freeman 1).
As you may have surmised, this represents some significant reduction in creative license in the telling of a believable modern tale. So if you are detecting that a writer must do research especially where the Mummy is concerned, you would be correct. To write a really good Mummy story today, there are culturally exposed eggshells to navigate and real truths to illuminate. But can a good Mummy story be written where truths are served in place of “constructed mythologies” designed to lead a reader’s imagination down the slippery shafts of invented pyramid legends and hurtling terror from desiccated corpses in rotting linen wrappings? I say yes; because the ultimate Curse of The Mummy is our inability to forget him – our inevitable connection to his insinuation of an afterlife in which justice is served with a side of revenge and the occasional blush of eternal love.
The Mummy in Horror Tradition
The Mummy is considered one of Horror’s Traditional Monsters...“abominations of nature, twisted versions of normality” which include such venerable greats as the Vampire, the Werewolf, King Kong, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon… (Groves 1-2). Some contemporary analysts call those monsters that are not werewolves “cenobites” – which “represent the dangers of overreaching desire and curiosity and the transforming effect of immoral behavior…Cenobites begin as ordinary human beings, but their quest for every greater pleasure and pains as well as the quest for ever more exotic experience gradually transforms their bodies until they become monsters in the flesh to mirror the monstrosity of their minds…cenobites are not victims (like werewolves) but choose to become monsters…”(Groves 2). As such, they appeal to those earlier “dark traditions [that are] generally the result of a dialectical polarity with religious traditions where the monsters that result are representative of ‘fallen nature’ which detours from the historical process” (Groves 1).
The Mummy rests comfortably here, having lived a normal life in his time and experienced the historically supported death ritual of mummification and interment. Yet how the Mummy evolves from man to monster varies according to the era and the teller of the tale. Sometimes it is for love; other times, it is for revenge, or honor, or greed and power.
This fluidity in fundamental story structure becomes the biggest weakness of the Mummy – which “suffers in comparison… to the other famous monsters which have a literary source (a ‘foundational text’) or a mythical origin (Freeman 1). There is no factual, historical detail transforming the Mummy from curiosity into monsterhood. So the Mummy – from curse to revenge – was a created and imagined history bled from European fears and supposition which was disguised beneath a veil labeled foreign and therefore “exotic” and unverifiable. It was also serving as a metaphor for the times in which it was being exploited in real life. In the early fiction, the Mummy represented an unadulterated escape from an unsettlingly fast-paced, rapidly changing nineteenth century life hurtling toward industrialization; it symbolized a romanticized past, the mysterious and the simple…it represented spiritual and scientific knowledge, the technical and the occult, and offered a titillating, sexually charged metaphor in the unwrapping of unaware bodies (Henderson 22). Before the advancements of science swept away the fantasies, the Mummy was a character pregnant with unrestrained plot and the enabler of unbridled imagination.
Therefore, the Mummy’s modern tendency to languish as a fad of yesteryear resides in the facts of its initial popularity: obscurity and the fear of the unknown have been exorcised by the passage of time and technology. Audiences and readers are more sophisticated and educated, initiating a sequence of political correctness that hampers the re-telling of the Mummy’s tale without significant alterations respectful of known (or discoverable) details. Yet its history is worth review, and its core concept worth revisiting. There is a significant list of older Mummy tales to mine as told by authors of note:
Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb Loundon (1827), “Some Words With a Mummy” by Edgar Allen Poe (1845), The Romance of the Mummy (1856) and “The Mummy’s Foot”(1863) both by Theophile Gautier(1856), Iras, a Mystery by H.D. Everett (1896), “The Ring of Thoth” (1890) and “Lot No. 249” (1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Pharos the Egyptian by Guy Boothby (1899), “The Mysterious Mummy” (1903), Dr. Fu Manchu Part 10: The Mummy (1915) and numerous other stories by Sax Rohmer; The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker (1906); and “The Nemesis of Fire” by Algernon Blackwood (1908) (Guran 2). Additionally there more modern stories: “Lost in a Pyramid” by Louisa May Alcott; “The Vengeance of Nitocris” by Tennessee Williams; “Under the Pyramids” (at one point retitled “Imprisoned With the Pharaohs”) by H.P. Lovecraft; “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” by Agatha Christie; “The Majestic Sphinx” by Mark Twain; “Smith and the Pharaohs” by Sir H. Rider Haggard; “Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Home-Made Truly Egyptian Mummy” by Ray Bradbury; and “The Locked Tomb Mystery” by Elizabeth Peters (Stephens vii-viii).
Anne Rice is the only modern author to tackle a full-length novel of the Mummy in her well-received and bestselling 1989 title, The Mummy, or Ramses The Damned. There is also a film remake from 1999 titled The Mummy directed by Stephen Sommers (starring Brendan Fraser), a re-telling of the 1932 Karloff film. But there are few other takers outside of the short story format, which itself offers few and too far between anthologies with the Mummy as centerpiece. The scarcity of Mummy tales is the indicator of a sea change in the genre and in audience sophistication. A glance at the few reviews available reveals both a niche audience bearing disappointment and a severe shortage of Mummy writing even in collections (which seem increasingly forced to recycle from the limited supply). Has the Mummy had its time? Is there too much to tackle in reinventing this monster to fit the criteria now dictated by known fact and the constraints of political correctness? Have we linked the Mummy too closely with real people, real loss, and real grief to consider disturbing his rest?
The Thoroughly Modern Mummy
Indeed, there are things to consider. In this global community, there is always someone who knows more than we do about a given subject, so due diligence is now a responsibility when writing. As writers, we should not randomly and irresponsibly steal from other cultures – there is too much factually available that serves our writing purposes. We owe all cultures not our own a measure of respect when we borrow from them. There has been enough pillaging and party-atmosphere unwrapping of things we don’t understand; we live in an age of technology and availability of tremendous avenues of research. We have no excuse to recycle ignorance when we have a whole new wealth of information and historical facts from which to grow our modern Mummy – the petri dish has ever more rich detail in it. From libraries to databases, museums to research facilities, one fact remains true: the more we know the more questions we have. Surely there is a tale in there somewhere. This abundance of information offers opportunity and challenge. How could delving headfirst into Egyptian history be a bad thing? Haven’t Horror writers traditionally found their niche in the spaces between the words of fact?
Furthermore, in our cultural maturity, has the awareness of what we have done in the name of curiosity and ignorance made the realization of the truth – that real mummies were real people and it is real remains we have marginalized – that makes the whole subject unpalatable? Do we associate the Mummy with great-grandma and her promised eternal rest in Forest Lawn?
Perhaps we should. That is the essence of Horror.
What the international community did in the early days of discovery to the Ancient Egyptians is all but unforgivable. “In the nineteenth century, European and American fascination with Egypt and her mummies was at an all-time high. Mummies were ground up and taken as medicine and used as pigments in paint. ‘Mummy cloth’ was a fashionable part of female dress advertised in Harper’s Bazaar (Henderson 2) …Mummies were sold in classifieds, advertised as museum attractions, unwrapped in front of intimate and grand audiences alike, becoming subjects of humorous and romantic tales (3). When Egypt banned mummy and antiquities exporting in 1835, [determined] travelers would often dismember their mummies to fit them into steamer trunks – hence the prevalence of disembodied hands, feet, and heads that ‘float around European and American collections to this day’”… In 1882 in England, a ‘full-sized’ specimen [sold] for 60 to 100 pounds, while a baby fetched 10-12 pounds (Henderson 7). That’s right: a baby. Here ignorance (and to some accounts and sources – perhaps racism) is an explanation; but it is certainly no good excuse.
Horror is where the rubber meets the road. This “new-found” awareness and sense of the politically correctness of our current age should not be the terminus of a great monster. As modern writers, this is our opportunity to re-make the Mummy into what he was meant to be: a warning against tampering with death and the afterlife. The ingredients remain; only the recipe must be re-invented. Isn’t it time we did so with a show of respect to the Egyptian culture that gave us a truly great monster? I challenge you to consider it; to use the Mummy as a writing prompt and do the unthinkable: resurrect the Mummy in modern Horror fiction. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all. And with the Mummy, there is plenty of Weird to go around… So unwrap the truth. And make it scary.
Sources and recommended reading:
Freeman, Richard. “The Mummy in Context.” European Journal of American Studies, 1/2009, Document 4. Retrieved on 06/07/2012 from http://ejas.revues.org/7566
Groves, J. Randall. “Monsters and History: Traditional and Posthuman Monsters.” Ferris State University. Retrieved 06/06/2012 from http://www.freewebs.com/randoc/Monsters%20and%20History.htm
Guran, Paula. “Return of the Mummy: Parts One and Two.” Dark Echo/Horror Online April 1999; retrieved 06/07/2012 from http://www.darkecho.com/darkecho/horroronline/mummy1.html
Henderson, Carley. “The Face of the Mummy.” Undergraduate Research Awards. Georgia State University Digital Archive@GSU. Retrieved 06/05/2012 from http://digitalarchive.gsu.edu/univ_lib_ura/1
Into the Mummy’s Tomb: Mysterious Tales of Mummies and Ancient Egypt, John Richard Stephens, ed. New York: Barnes & Noble, c1999, 2006.