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