Book review: The Mummy’s Curse: The True History Of A Dark Fantasy by Roger Luckhurst

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A smart cultural history that unwraps why theWest became obsessed with dead pharaohs

The Mummy’s Curse: The True History Of A Dark Fantasy

By Roger Luckhurst

Oxford University Press, 322pp, £18.99

Thanks, for the most part, to Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jnr (and no thanks to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson more recently), the Mummy has become as much a stock character of horror films and literature as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the zombie and the werewolf. But whereas Dracula and Frankenstein owe their existence to the pens of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and the undead and lycanthropes can be found in folk mythologies from classical Greece to medieval Serbia and modern Haiti, mummies are actually real. This is just one of the slippages and ambiguities in Roger Luckhurst’s fascinating account of how Egyptian corpses gripped the public imagination at the turn of the last century.

Luckhurst begins with the most famous mummy narrative, the supposed Curse of Tutankhamen. When the fifth Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter opened the tomb in 1922, they supposedly unleashed the ire of the dead pharaoh. By 25 March 1923, Carnarvon was dead and the “curse” went on to claim his half-brothers and his dog, the radiologist who examined the mummy, two rich visitors to the tomb, the French Egyptologist Georges Bénédite, the governer-general of Sudan, Carter’s co-writer, his personal secretary, his father, Lord Westbury, an eight-year old child killed by Westbury’s hearse, and Arthur Weigall, a Daily Mail journalist and amateur Egyptologist who denied the existence of the curse but profited from claiming he predicted it.

If such a curse did exist, it took a dashed long while to get around to claiming the life of Carter, the man who did most to discover the tomb, who died of cancer in 1939 at 64. Given that the most cursory examination of the facts ought to introduce a healthy dose of scepticism into any rational person, Luckhurst asks why the story took such a tenacious hold on the public imagination. From the outset, the legend of the curse was cross-hatched with literary significance: the first suggestion came, in the Daily Express, from Marie Corelli, the best-selling author of The Sorrows Of Satan.

Luckhurst’s first approach to the story is an archaeological one. Although the most famous such story, the Curse of Tutankhamen is not the first; and by looking at similar stories involving Thomas Douglas Murray and Walter Herbert Ingram he is able to piece together variations on the theme. Murray’s mummy – the “Priestess of Amen-Ra” – was so frequently described as malign and powerful that authorities had to insist it was not on board the Titanic, the Lusitania or the Empress of Ireland. Ingram was trampled to death by an elephant which he was trying to shoot, and his remains apparently dug up by hyenas, all on account of his ownership of the Nesmin Mummy, which would go on to terrorise Lady Meux and Randolph Hearst. Luckhurst links these “curse” stories to similar indigenous stories of aristocratic downfall, the Tichborne Curse being the best known.

He also shows, brilliantly, how the mummy stories stand at a confluence of various Victorian and Edwardian streams of anxiety. The mummy activates concerns about ownership, the Orient and decadence.

The central section of the book details how “Egyptian” styles were promulgated through exhibitions, architecture, commercial enterprises and museums, and how the idea of cursed Egyptianz artefacts was transformed by writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood and most notably H Rider Haggard. In looking at Murray and Ingram, a loose grouping of characters emerges, including members of the “Ghost Club”, various Theosophist and Spiritualist groups, journalists like WT Stead, and the disagreeable, ethically suspect Ernest Wallis Budge, the Keeper of the British Museum’s Egyptian Rooms. Luckhurst compares the possession of a mummy with Veblen’s theory about the leisure class valuing articles of conspicuous consumption particularly associated with luck, and with Marx’s idea of the commodity fetish (which he telling refers to as a “social hieroglyph”). Freud is invoked as well, whose interests in hypnotism and the idea of Moses as Egyptian rather than Jewish further complicate the picture. There is a sense of the revenge of the oppressed: why do mummies become a symbol of terror just at the time that the British are first using Gatling guns to put down insurrections across the whole of the African continent (and when, horribly, a person such as Ingram can boast of his lootings from battlefields)?

The chapters on the fad for Egyptian stories is well done, with pertinent critiques of work by Stoker (The Jewel Of Seven Stars) and Haggard as well as “pulp” figures like Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu is described as mummy-like; Algernon Blackwood, creator of the physician extraordinaire John Silence; and Richard Marsh’s gloriously gruesome The Beetle. It seems curious not to have included HP Lovecraft’s collaboration with Harry Houdini, “Under the Pyramids” – also sometimes printed as “Entombed with the Pharaohs” – written the year after Lord Carnarvon’s death; or that Lovecraft’s “alter ego” is given the name Carter.

Part of this cultural history reveals that the idea of science as an intact and privileged space of rationalism is more wish-fulfilment than fact. The barriers between science, pseudo-science and the irrational turn out to be rather more porous than one might think. In a final chapter on the evil eye and taking in the formation of such outré bodies as the Order of the Golden Dawn, Luckhurst mentions, for example, Anna Kingsford, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England, and who believed she had killed a vivisectionist by “will projection” – a phenomenon dubbed by WT Stead as “killer-willer”.

Unwrapping mummies was part scientific lecture and part hokey showmanship. Likewise, “culture” is just as marbled with its opposite. Aleister Crowley may now be associated with The Devil Rides Out and Oliver Haddo in Somerset Maugham’s The Magician, but he was known to WB Yeats (whose own dabbling in the occult are now less of an embarrassment and more of a profitable line of academic enquiry) and other members of the literati.

There are some absolutely laugh-out-loud moments in this consistently insightful and well-written study – the pen-portrait of the eccentric Kabbalist Samuel Mathers who reinvented himself as Comte Macgregor of Glenstrae and then Hierophant Rameses is excellent. This is the kind of academic volume which impresses you with the ideas found on each page, and at the same time sparks off new ideas in the reader.

One aspect of the Egyptian craze which goes unmentioned is the sphinx, which at least partially belong to the Graeco-Roman tradition as well. In both de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant, the sphinx is the symbol of the “riddle” of modern streets. The whole idea of psychogeography and urban exploration might have as much to do with the necropolises of the Nile as the boulevards of Paris.