Each January I recommend an antidote to the festive season and this year it is `The Book of the Dead’. No, not the collections of funerary texts known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This `The Book of the Dead’ is an anthology of `original stories of mummies and mayhem’ edited by Jared Shurin. It came out in 2013 and is one of a series of interesting anthologies published by Jurassic. You can get it as an ebook but the striking black and white illustrations by Garen Ewing and the creepy cover look better in the paperback edition. As I’m an Egyptologist myself, I am not easy to please when it comes to mummy stories but I found plenty to enjoy in this collection.
`The Book of the Dead’ is introduced by Dr John J. Johnston, Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, and contains nineteen stories by a mix of American and British authors from the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. The anthology is dedicated to one of my favourite Victorian heroines – Amelia Edwards, the remarkable traveller and writer who founded the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882 `with the purpose of protecting and raising public awareness of the monuments of ancient and medieval Egypt.’ Since Amelia wrote ghost stories and kept the heads of two Egyptian mummies in her bedroom, I’m sure she would have loved the gruesome delights on offer here. Some of the authors have based their stories on scholarly research but Johnston makes it clear that this was optional because `facts should never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good tale.’
A few of the stories are actually set in Egypt, such as Gail Carriger’s `The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, The Mummy that Was, and the Cat in the Jar’ (an acidic prequel to her Parasol Protectorate series) and Will Hill’s poignant `Three Memories of Death’. Others follow Ancient Egyptian mummies who have ended up in countries such as America (Paul Cornell’s `Ramasses on the Frontier’), England (Jonathon Green’s `Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies, Rooms 62-3′) or France (Louis Greenberg’s hilarious `Akhenaten Goes to Paris’). Not all the mummies in this collection hail from Egypt. The prize for most grotesque story should probably go to David Bryher’s `The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey’ in which a space-age Lady Devorguilla has her husband’s mummy grafted onto her back. In `Tollund’, Adam Roberts gives a clever twist to the standard `archaeologists fall victim to the mummy’s curse’ plot by having arrogant Egyptian scholars investigating bog-mummies in primitive Denmark. This story has a wonderful dank and foggy atmosphere and some moments of gut-wrenching horror, though I found its Science Fiction ending rather disappointing.
The Ancient Egyptians didn’t just mummify people. Mummified cats are the inspiration for several stories in this collection, including Jenni Hill’s charming `The Cats of Beni Hasan’ and`Mysterium Tremendum’ by Molly Tanzer, a decidedly unsentimental tale of an undead Pharaoh determined to be reunited with his pet cat after `twenty-seven long centuries’. Hill’s story is based on the historical fact that thousands of cat mummies were smashed up and spread on fields as fertilizer. Other contributors have focused on different indignities which Egyptian mummies have been subjected to, such as their wrappings being turned into paper (Roger Luckhurst’s `The Thing of Wrath’) or their bodies ground up and used as condiments or to make ink (`Bit-U-Men’ by Maria Dahvana Headly). No wonder most fictional mummies come back to life in a very bad mood.
I’m glad to say that all the mummies I’ve encountered have stayed safely dead, but people have long been fascinated by the idea that the Ancient Egyptians used magic and mummification to cheat death. Some of the stories in this volume imagine more modern methods of ensuring that the essence of person never dies, such as an afterlife on the internet (`Henry’ by Glen Mehn). In modern fiction and in Horror movies, those who try to live for ever are often classed as monsters. It seems that we want corpses who refuse to stay in their tombs to be punished, even when their motivation is eternal love. `Old Souls’ by David Thomas Moore is a subtle tale of a relationship spanning many lives which has become a bitter torment, while Lou Morgan’s `Her Heartbeat, An Echo’ describes a museum guard’s tragic obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess weary of immortality. Very few love stories involving mummies have a happy ending.
The tales in `The Book of the Dead’ range in tone from the heartlessly horrific to the hauntingly sad. In between there is a surprising amount of humour. I was particularly tickled by the long-lost mummy of Akhenaten trying to get through French passport control after putting on a wig and a body stocking and slathering his face with bees wax `to look less….dead’. As you might expect with a multi-author anthology, I didn’t like all the stories but a hit rate of around 70% seemed pretty high to me. If you choose to open this particular `Book of the Dead’ you will get the bonus of finding out how The Egypt Exploration Society is still helping to study and preserve the remains of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. In these troubled times, it is a task that is more urgent than ever. Happy New Year.