07 November 2010

+JMJ+

Reading Diary: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

"I insist upon being allowed to participate in the excavations. After all, why should men have all the fun?"

"Fun?" Emerson repeated. "To be burned by the sun, rubbed raw by sand, live on rations no self-respecting beggar would eat; to be bitten by snakes and mashed by falling rocks? Your definition of pleasure, Peabody, is very peculiar."

"Peculiar or not, it
is my idea of pleasure. Why, why else would you lead this life if you don't enjoy it? Don't talk of duty to me; you men always have some high-sounding excuse for indulging yourselves. You go gallivanting over the earth, climbing mountains, looking for the sources of the Nile; and expect women to sit dully at home embroidering. I embroider very badly. I think I would excavate rather well . . ."

If I had read this novel at any other time, this post would be a straight-up "Girls and Adventures" review. While I get the sense that this Victorian-set mystery could never have been written in its own era--be it due to the age's mores, its writers' propensities, or its readers' ability to suspend disbelief--I found myself thoroughly enjoying the interaction among the four leads: two professional archeologists (male) and the two sightseers (female) who drop in on their dig and simultaneously disrupt and facilitate it. They end up working together beautifully as a team, each one with something to contribute to both the science and the adventure. I'm definitely going to read more books in this series!

But it's November, and I've just come off two whole months of Horror reading, and all I want to do now is discuss the story's mummy.



The thing was there. Pale in the moonlight, it stood motionless . . . This time, the moon shone full upon it, and there could be no mistake as to its nature. I could almost make out the pattern of the bandaging across its breast. The featureless head was wrapped all around with cloth. It was bad enough to see this monstrosity when it stood motionless; but as I watched, the head turned. Its slow, weaving moment was appalling, like that of an eyeless creature of the abyss blindly seeking some source of attraction even more alluring than light.

How exactly did mummies fall out of favour in the Horror world? As monsters, they have few equals. When people think of reanimated corpses, we immediately jump to zombies--but mummies are the undisputed kings, or I should say, the pharaohs, of the zombie kingdom. They carry both the malice of ancient evil and controlled cruelty of civilisation, appearing featureless where we expect to see a face. And they put our positivist scientific presumptions to shame, rising from violated tombs to terrorise us for disbelieving in their power.

I know that if I were at an archaeological dig, I would be a bit wary of disturbing ancient ghosts. And if I were in a shadowy museum, I would wonder whether any of the old curiosities happen to carry curses. But maybe that's just it: how many Horror stories are set at digs or in museums, these days? Such fascinations--and the fears that come with them--seem so dusty and Victorian. The archaeologist-adventurer had a last hurrah with Indiana Jones; but once-popular Jonny Quest couldn't even come back after a futuristic makeover. And the kiss of death in Horror-crossover? You'll never read a Paranormal Romance with a hot, sexy mummy. (UPDATE: I can't believe I completely forgot about the more recent franchise of The Mummy!!!)

And except for that PNR bit, it's really quite a pity. The mummy is a very special monster, born of the tumultuous marriage between two great civilisations: the British Empire in its prime and Ancient Egypt thousands of years dead. It was born from Egyptian folk memory, yes, but seeded, in this historical instance, by a more rationalist sensibility from Europe. As one character observes, after several mummy sightings have terrified the natives and foreigners alike: "It must be obvious . . . that the instigator of the plot is not an Egyptian; it contains too many features that could have been invented only by a European or an Englishman. Or perhaps an American . . ."

In the future, I'd love to do some more research into the "construction" of this classic monster.

Image Sources: a) Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, b) Boris Karloff in The Mummy

11 comments:

Sullivan McPig said...

Did you see the Mummy and the Mummy Returns?
My owner claims that is one droolworthy mummy and she wouldn't have treat him as bad as the women in those movies did.
And I should put this book on my wishlist. I've heard many good things about it.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Good call! I actually didn't see either of those movies. I should amend this post to reflect their recent success. Thanks, Sully. =)

PS--A droolworthy mummy, aye? =P As I've said elsewhere, I respect your owner's tastes. I should watch those movies!

Paul Stilwell said...

Ever since watching The Monster Squad as a kid, the Mummy never impressed me much. As you may know, the movie used him for a rather hysterical joke; his literal unraveling.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Yes, that's true. There's also a relatively new cartoon called Tutenstein, with a mummy boy who is awakened by a modern girl who just happens to love Ancient Egypt. I'll have to watch The Mummy trilogy that Sully recommends; but I'm tempted to go out on a limb now and say that nobody is really frightened by them and what they represent any longer.

Paul Stilwell said...

In a world of fast-moving zombies, yes, perhaps. But there's always the prospect that someone could make the mummy frightening, if through making the curses from ancient Egypt scary, which, as you imply, ought to be so.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Maybe it's the idea of ancient curses that doesn't grip us any longer?

Paul Stilwell said...

That would be my guess. Now I want to see the classic film. The Brenden Fraser ones are fun, from what I remember.

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Oh, I'm so glad you brought this up.
I was surprised at how much I loved that Karloff movie.
But here's a thought for you -- zombies are mummies.
Zombies didn't show up before Romero, did they? Re-animated dead? And both are slow monsters, arms out ahead of themselves, body parts falling off?
If you go with the theory that horror is our way of working out cultural conflicts, then both follow the same path -- the horror or arrogance, both the arrogance of the pharaohs or of whatever wild human excess brought on the zombie wave (sometimes it's a natural disaster, but almost universally it's clear zombies are "our" fault for going all tower of Babel), and then the arrogance of thinking those natural or supernatural forces beyond ourselves are silly things we can disregard without danger (a la British Empire or American rationalism).
Too much of a stretch?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I was thinking "mummies are zombies," but the "zombies are mummies" view is much better! You're definitely on to something. =D And really, the idea of a reanimated corpse is too good to be limited by an Egyptian setting. Since our greatest superstitions these days seem to be secular, it makes sense that we'd have a scientific scourge rather than an ancient curse.

And now it becomes more obvious why mummies so easily became objects of fun. When you aren't running away from them, in fear for your life, reanimated corpses of all sorts can be hilarious.

Lindsay said...

Hmm. I may have to check this book out at some point in time!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I definitely recommend it! Even if you don't like mummies or aren't crazy about Egyptian settings, it's a really good read. =)