Monday, 11 February 2013

The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy

A book on the mummy’s curse, or rather curses, might seen a topic as thin as a bandage, but Roger Luckhurst unwraps it with more vitality than displayed by Boris Karloff’s Imhotep in The Mummy.  (Anyone hoping for a detailed analysis of the Hollywood mummy films, despite the title’s nod to the 1944 Lon Chaney vehicle, will be disappointed.  Universal’s 1930s/1940s cycle gets merely a page, though there is a fantastic photograph of Karloff as Imhotep, showing his remarkable mesmeric eyes to best advantage, and the 1999 film and its sequels do not even warrant a mention; Luckhurst is more interested in James Frazer than Brendan Frazer.)  The aim is to rescue the idea of the mummy’s curse from academic indifference and demonstrate that it has much to say about the culture generating it.  Given that the ancient Egyptians were not given to including curses in their tombs’ appurtenances, such myths must say something about a society which takes seriously belief in the ability to reach across the millennia with a power that we cannot fathom.

The book is divided into two parts, of unequal length.  The first traces three curse stories, the most famous being the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.  The earlier ones, though less well known, are interesting in their own right and show the ways in which the curse put flesh on its bones, demonstrating an ambivalent push-pull fascination with corpses that mixed fascination and distaste.  The first involves Thomas Douglas Murray who in 1865 acquired what was later catalogued as 22542 (popularly known as “The Unlucky Mummy”), said to have brought bad luck on all who came into contact with her and which eventually, to put a stop of the chaos, was given to the British Museum in 1889, where its baleful influence supposedly continued.  This isn’t actually a mummy at all, but a gessoed wooden “mummy board”, or inner coffin lid, painted with the image of a woman, possibly a priestess of Amen-Ra, of the 21st dynasty (c.950 BC).  Murray, a Spiritualist and member of the Ghost Club, was a friend of Henry Morton Stanley, the brother-in-law of Frederic Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research.  He actually was somewhat unlucky, managing to shoot his arm off while out hunting quail just after making the purchase, thereby launching the curse tale.

Having got off to a memorable start, the curse pulls in such figures as Theosophist H. P. Blavatsky; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Bertram Fletcher Robinson (a well-known journalist in his day but most famously associated with the genesis of The Hound of the Baskervilles), who wrote an articled on the mummy board for the Express and died shortly afterwards; W. T. Stead, Spiritualist and muckraker; Ada Goodrich-Freer, adventuress, sadomasochist and psychical researcher who co-edited Borderland with Stead; Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, Keeper of the British Museum’s Egyptian Rooms who engaged in ethically dubious archaeological practices; and an equally colourful cast of minor characters.  These personnel allow Luckhurst to explore the psychical research nexus of the allegedly unlucky mummy.  This was the item that was supposed to have been lost on the Titanic in 1912, along with Stead, the ship sunk as a result of the curse.  Yet as an example of a free-floating rumour, it was also said to be on both the Empress of Ireland and the Lusitania when they sank in 1914 and 1915 respectively.  Despite these supposed misadventures you can still see it at the British Museum, where it has enjoyed an uninterrupted sojourn since it was deposited.  Murray himself, it is worth noting, lived to 70, hardly a life cut short.

The other pre-Tutmania curse story concerns the mummy and coffin of a priest called Nesmin which Walter Herbert Ingram bought as a souvenir of his participation in the failed Gordon Relief Expedition in 1885.  The case was said to include a “blood-curdling inscription” to the effect that anybody who disturbed the resting place would be killed by wild animals, seemingly fulfilled when Ingram was trampled to death in Somaliland in 1888 at the age of 33 while attempting to shoot an elephant with insufficient firepower, his remains washed away and scattered.  The British Museum acquired the gilded cartonnage mummy mask in 1885 (no 24402), while the mummy and coffin were given to Lady Meux for her collection of Egyptiana.  The curse was supposed to have affected the family, but as is the way with these things it was selectively perceived, being retrofitted to suit circumstances, while emphasising hits and ignoring misses (thus the curse evolved to inflict childlessness, so Mrs Ingram, who bore a child after Walter’s death, was ignored, but Lady Meux, who died childless, was clearly a victim).  Lady Meux’s ownership intertwines the curse with narratives of aristocratic decadence and downfall (clearly under her spell, Luckhurst spends more time on the racy Lady than is strictly necessary for the narrative).  After her death in 1910 mummy and coffin were purchased by William Randolph Hearst (who suffered his own share of misfortunes), and in 1939 by the Rhode Island School of Design, where they still reside.  The blood-curdling inscription, naturally, never existed.   In any case, both the Murray and the Ingram curses seem to have run their course.

The daddy of such curse stories is that of Tutankhamun.  George Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon, financed Howard Carter’s archaeological excavation that uncovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922.  The journalists who descended on the excavation hoped to see something to write home about, but as Carnarvon had signed an exclusive deal with the Times, they were obliged to cast their nets wider in the search for copy to justify their expense accounts.  The death of Carnarvon in April 1923 from blood poisoning complicated by pneumonia was manna from heaven as the Times’s stranglehold on activity within the tomb was irrelevant, and rumours claiming that he was the victim of a curse began to circulate, soon growing to mythic proportions: at the moment of his death the Continental hotel, where he had died, was blacked out (or was that the whole of Cairo?), while back at Highclere Castle, the Carnarvon estate, the family dog had howled mournfully and keeled over at the exact moment of her master’s death, allowing for the time difference.  Were these dramatic events the result of a curse?  It was claimed that over the entrance to the tomb was a clay tablet bearing the warning that “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh”, clear proof if any were needed.  As it happened there was no such tablet, but such details cannot stand in the way of a good story.  Any misfortune that befell anyone connected with the operation, eventually extending to some twenty individuals, was attributed to revenge heaped on those who would dare desecrate the tomb, even though the mortality profile of those involved was statistically no different from the general population; Carter for instance soldiered on until 1939, when he died of cancer, aged 64.

The second half of The Mummy’s Curse is less focused.  Luckhurst examines the presence of Egypt in London in its various forms as it became more familiar during the course of the nineteenth century, and demonstrates how slow the curse motif was to develop.  England started to take serious notice of Egypt in 1801 when it bagged Napoleon’s loot from his disastrous Egyptian campaign, humiliatingly exchanged to get his army home safely.  At this point, Egypt evoked feelings of awe at the massiveness of its ancient monuments, mixed with a sense of their vulgarity compared to classical models.  While it did not catch on to any extent, the architectural style, which for example was notably employed in Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall in 1811 (actually a somewhat hybrid facade), proved popular.  Artefacts placed on show generated interest in their exoticism, but there was no sense of fear that they might possess dark powers.  Even the public mummy unwrappings, which like the wider culture of popular science demonstrations were mixtures of scientific lecture and showmanship, did not generate the distaste that such close proximity to corpses might be expected to create, perhaps because the bodies were dessicated (one might compare them to the churches where bodies are on display, such as at St. Michan’s in Dublin, or to Lindow Man, which may produce debate on the ethics of display, but not general disgust).  When the Crystal Palace was re-erected at Sydenham in 1854, it contained an Egyptian Court full of enormous recreated statuary in an immersive experience that transported the visitor back to Pharaonic times while linking the Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian and British empires in a positive way.

Luckhurst then traces the shift of these attitudes during the second half of the century, focusing on the development of the curse tale in its museum setting and in wider literature.  This was not a sudden switch, and Egypt could inspire cemetery architecture while punters enjoyed the vicarious pleasures of Egyptian travel at their local panorama or diorama.  The earliest fiction with an Egyptian theme was either romantic or tended to take a tone satirical of contemporary culture.  However, as the earlier sense of awe gave way to an emphasis on threat and fear, the association with the curse developed and became embedded in the late Victorian Gothic, exemplified by stories such as Conan Doyle’s ‘Lot No. 249’ and ‘The Ring of Thoth’, Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian, Bram Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars, stories by Sax Rohmer, and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.  After covering these, Luckhurst devotes longer sections to the stories of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (noting efforts also by his brothers, both army officers with direct experience of Egypt) and Algernon Blackwood.  This literary subset of the Imperial Gothic became a context for the later Tutankhamun curse narrative, though it is the way of these things to be mutually reinforcing; a late entry Luckhurst does not mention is John Metcalfe’s peculiar 1931 story ‘Mr. Meldrum’s Mania’, in which the unfortunate Mr. Meldrum finds himself transforming into the ibis-headed scribe Thoth.  A couple of scenes are set in the British Museum’s Egyptian galleries, showing that even after the peak of the mummy curses, the displays still retained uncanny associations.

The final chapter becomes still more diffuse, but is the most entertaining in the book, examining Egyptian influences on the fin de si├Ęcle Occult Revival in the shape of the Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley, with their ludicrous astral battles (W. T. Stead coining the term “killer-willer” to describe occultist and medical doctor Anna Kingsford’s alleged psychic assassination of a vivisectionist).  The notion of the evil eye is presented as a force linking the ancient mysteries of the East with late-Victorian anthropology and fiction.  The Unlucky Mummy was said to have a malevolent gaze, but these things are in the eye of the beholder because to the modern viewer, unencumbered by fears of curses (but you can’t be completely sure of course) she merely looks a little boss-eyed.

With all these curse stories there is a curious ambivalence to the reporting, one of superior dismissal of primitive superstition mixed with the nagging concern that there might be something in it.  Luckhurst shows how the mummy stories reflected anxieties that grew during the nineteenth century.  The gradual association of Egypt with supernatural menace was overdetermined, drawing together a number of issues of contemporary concern, though not always in an articulated way.  Imperial expansion was vigorous in the 1880s – Egypt was occupied militarily in 1882, the year the SPR was founded.  Yet despite this apparent display of self-confidence there was a certain insecurity in the Imperial project following the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and its brutal suppression, a sense of guilt accompanying the realisation that the mission to civilise the heathen had a dark side; the return of the – literally – repressed.  Similarly the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb came at a time of resurgent Egyptian nationalism, as British influence was on the wane.  Curses are not about our attitudes to the past, but are about the disguised working-through of present anxieties.

Additionally, underlying the apparent optimism of Empire were Western fears that, despite a perceived superiority over colonised subjects in technical matters, what seemed on the surface ignorant superstition among the dismissed ‘other’ hid a sophisticated understanding of forces beyond our control, and that would be employed to wreak revenge.  Allied to this was a sense that by delving too deeply into these mysteries, 'we’ might become contaminated, either literally or figuratively.  The thought that there could be forces superior to our technology, drawing on ancient wisdom that we are unable to fathom, challenges the assumption that Enlightenment rationality is naturally superior to other world views.  A curse said to stretch back thousands of years is actually a critique of modernism.

Looking at the massive monuments of Egypt, the civilisation that spawned them must have appeared permanent to its inhabitants.  Shelley had already spelled out the dangers of such complacency at the end of ‘Ozymandias’, a warning surely not lost as the British Empire reached its zenith:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

There are occasional lapses into academese in The Mummy’s Curse, but unlike much humourless institutional output, Luckhurst is knowing about his use of it.  Towards the end of the book he breaks out of character to put formal assessment into a demotic framework: “The jargon of secularization, disenchantment and re-enchantment [of which he has given us quite a lot] can sometimes make you lose sight of how simply bug-out crazy many of the beliefs of the inner circle of secret societies like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were.”  That is so refreshing to hear.

Roger Luckhurst. The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy. Oxford University Press, 2012.