Radziwill’s Mysterious Mummies

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This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to join a board game party at the house of a friend. It’s always a delight to be in a group with other nerds: conversation flows fast, but you never know just what you’re going to end up discussing. Except when I’m in the party, of course, at which point the conversation always somehow ends up touching on Egypt.

(I know, I know. I have a problem.)

During the party, someone asked me just when mummies became monsters. I wasn’t able to give a full answer (though I did manage to issue my usual pre-monologue warning, which is something along the lines of “Do you have about thirty minutes for the answer?”), but it’s definitely a topic I love, and when I got home I spent some time reading through some bits of this and that from my research. And one piece I’ve decided to share.

The classic answer to “when did mummies become monsters?” is usually “Around 1699.” That’s when Louis Penicher published his Treatise on Embalmingincluding a story of a supposedly cursed or malevolent pair of mummies that bedeviled a ship. The tale is taken from the letters of one “Radzevil,” who appears to be one of the Mikolaj Radziwills; which one, I’m not sure. Penicher sets the scene and then turns it over to Radziwill, who has purchased two mummies to bring back to Europe.

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Dreams of the Rude-Book Fiend: An Ode to Bibliophilia

I love the word “rude.” Nowadays it’s mostly used to just mean … well … rude, IE unpleasant, uncouth, uncivilized, and a host of other “un”s related to how one behaves in polite company. But back in the olden days I love to talk about so much, it variously meant things like “roughly-made” (“a rude table” certainly wasn’t cussing anyone out), “ignorant or unsophisticated” (the rude peasantry, staging all those uprisings) or even “robust.” Much like a certain f-word which rhymes with “maggot,” the word “rude” went through many meanings. And when I call myself a fan of rude books, I use all of those meanings.

Most of my book collection consists of books which are either roughly-made (small-press releases, half-bound review copies), unsophisticated (explosions! Explosions everywhere!), robust (if it doesn’t merit at least two rereads, it doesn’t go on the shelf), and, yes, uncouth (at least in the eyes of the “genre fiction isn’t real writing” crowd). I love rude books, in all their forms. And aside from the few rarities that live on my designated Egypt Shelf, the books are well-loved: I tend to read them until they fall apart, at which point I either buy another copy or get out the Scotch tape.

Here, then, is part of my library, and some of the books that I consider invaluable for a collection. Please forgive the terrible photographs.

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Review: Cadaver & Queen by Alisa Kwitney

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Now, I’m not the sort of person who’s going to make fun of people who want sexy monsters. I’m proud to say that I’m one of the few authors to comprehensively treat that vital question, “How do you make a dried-up walking corpse attractive?” However, it is worth nothing that there’s been a recent upswing in the number of monsters the Internet has collectively deemed sexable. Vampires have been objects of sexual attraction for over a century; werewolves have a longstanding reputation for animal magnetism; in recent years, even zombies and fish-men have gotten a chance to shine as romantic leads. And truly modern creations like the Predator and Venom (of the Spider-Man franchise) have legions of fans who would be willing to take a walk on the wild side with them.

Out of all the classic horror creatures, though, Frankenstein’s monster has been somewhat left behind by this new trend. Like the Mummy and the zombie, Frankenstein’s monster has the taboo of necrophilia attached to it, and unlike the Mummy or the zombie, the monster can’t excuse away his undead nature via the use of convenient magic. His origin story is inextricably tied to mad science and all the gruesome details that come with it. Furthermore, he’s chiefly familiar as the Boris Karloff monster, and the subtleties of his original book incarnation have been overwritten in the public memory by the green-skinned, bolt-necked, grunting giant.

Alisa Kwitney’s Cadaver & Queen finds clever ways to solve all of those problems. Not only does her monster owe more to the intelligent, tragic creature of the book than the Karloff incarnation, but she kills two birds with one stone by rolling monster and creator into one. In this late-Victorian alternate universe where steampunk-esque mad science has created a whole new category of life, Victor Frankenstein has himself become the tragic undead.

Some spoilers ahead, so beware!
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Here’s to Mothers Who Write

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Imagine turning over your drawing paper to abruptly find a scene of chaos in a tenth-century Norse tavern. Previously, your main concern had been to see if the other side of the paper was blank, so you could draw another picture without having to make another trip to the scrap paper box; now you’re frantically digging through that same box, looking for the paper that holds the next piece of the scene.

From about 1995 onwards, digging through the scrap paper box in our family home was a bit like literary Russian roulette. Both parents were voluminous writers, but while Dad’s scrap paper would have code sequences and technical documentation that a seven-year-old couldn’t make heads or tails of, Mom’s papers provided brief glimpses of a strange, ancient world full of culture clashes and vivid characters. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A Turkish nomad, an Anglian wool merchant, and a Norse whoremonger walk onto a ship …”

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Gods and Monsters VII: Conclusion (It’s Always Sunny in Hamunaptra)

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(This is the finale of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. A spoiler warning is in effect. Thank you for reading!)

VII — Conclusion (It’s Always Sunny in Hamunaptra)

The Mummy began as an artificial construct. Unlike fellow Universal alumni Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, the Mummy did not derive from a longstanding mythological tradition or primal human fear. Instead, he arose from a fundamental cultural misunderstanding, as modern Western minds misinterpreted ancient Eastern practices.

In a time when it was seen as the West’s right to control, exploit, and plunder the ancient dead, the prohibitive moral hazards of tomb desecration—and the natural hazards of exploration, such as disease and death—manifested in the popular consciousness as evidence of vague but dangerous curses. The cinematic Mummy initially arose to explain these curses, but through multiple iterations became the central figure of the drama. In doing so, he evolved his own character: as a cursed man, cast out for love. A sacrilegious man at the least, often a murderer, but almost always a tragic character whose downfall came from the best of intentions.

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Gods and Monsters VI: Good and Evil

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(This is part six of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. As we are now getting into the modern films, a spoiler warning is in effect. Enjoy!)

VI – Good and Evil

The Mummy is a two-part show. On the surface, he’s the bandaged man who walks around strangling people and collecting ancient artifacts. He may be slow and unsubtle, or he may be nuanced and grieving. However, he wouldn’t be alive to wreak his havoc or seek his lost love without the ancient power that animates him.

Magic lies at the heart of the Mummy’s story. The very first Imhotep in 1932 was a means of explaining the curses that were said to surround tombs and Egyptian mummies: he, the Mummy himself, not only suffered under a curse himself but inflicted it on others. Imhotep was the manifestation of the curse’s agency and direction. As more films were made, this aspect of the monster was somewhat lost, and the focus shifted to the Mummy as the implacable zombie assassin sent by malicious men. The magic was simply there to explain the Mummy’s ability to rise, rather than the Mummy explaining the magic.

But we can’t forget that this whole saga began with the allure of the “mysterious East” and the unknown. Explorers were fascinated by worlds and cultures that seemed entirely alien to them, and to the romantic Victorian mind, a curse seemed a natural consequence of disturbing these mysterious heathen dead. Throughout the films, the message remains that there are ancient powers and ancient gods that still hold sway today. Without magic and gods, there is no Mummy. Thus, if we wish to fully understand the Mummy, we have to look at the gods—and how filmmakers and storytellers have in turn misunderstood them.

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Gods and Monsters V: Formula Refined

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(This is part five of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. As we are now getting into the modern films, a spoiler warning is in effect. Enjoy!)

V – Formula Refined

2017’s The Mummy is a curious case study for anyone interested in the history or structure of fiction. A reboot of a reboot, a photocopy of a photocopy, mythologizing about a myth that is not a myth—describe it how you like. Rather than rebuilding the base structure of the story as the 1999 The Mummy had, the 2017 edition appears to be the result of a cinematic game of Telephone.

In previous installments of this essay, a comparison was made between eras of mummy films and the periods of ancient Egypt itself. If the Hammer era was the Middle Kingdom and the Fraser era was the New Kingdom, the 2017 The Mummy represents our entry into the Late Period: a time when ancient Egyptian culture, being conquered and re-conquered, attempted to save itself by aping its earlier incarnations.

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Gods and Monsters IV: Temporary Resurrection

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(This is part four of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. As we are now getting into the modern films, a spoiler warning is in effect. Enjoy!)

IV – Temporary Resurrection

After the death blow that was Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, the Mummy would stay out of the public eye for almost thirty years. While the tropes had been firmly established and would continue to appear in B-movies, Scooby-Doo episodes, etcetera, there wouldn’t be another high-visibility Mummy film until the cusp of the new millennium. Two films would battle it out, each with very different takes on the titular monster. Only one, however, would stick in the public consciousness, and go on to define the Mummy for a new generation of moviegoers. And only one of them would star Brendan Fraser.

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Comics and the Geek Girl: A Blind-Bag Reflection

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The comics fandom has become contentious of late. Are modern comics too political? Or have comics always been political, and fans just don’t like the kind they’re getting lately? Is a prominent DC Comics artist a secret Nazi? There’s nothing the Internet loves like drama, after all, and in some comics circles you can barely breathe for hashtags.

Do I have an official position on all this? No. I don’t have a prayer of keeping up with the ongoing arguments, and not being inside that particular industry, I don’t have any special information to contribute. But some of the talk centers around sexism in the nerd-o-sphere, and that’s gotten me thinking about the role of comics in my own life–and how my neighborhood comic shop shaped me as a writer and a female geek. ‘Cause at the end of the day, it’s about the stories.

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Gods and Monsters III: Hammered to Death

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(This is part three of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. Enjoy!)

III — Hammered to Death

Consider the history of ancient Egypt. The Old Kingdom crumbled slowly, dying under the weight of dynastic infighting and the drastic cost of the pyramids. It suffered a death by stagnation. In contrast, the rising Middle Kingdom was a short but sharp period of innovation and expansion, rising swiftly and accomplishing great things before, like the previous age, beginning to decay. With the death of the queen Sobekneferu, who ruled for just four years, the Middle Kingdom began to die too.

When Abbott and Costello mocked the established formula in 1955, the old, black-and-white mummy was officially as dead as the Old Kingdom. Now Hammer attempted to change the script. Three films would follow their 1959 effort: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971).

This was an unusual period of innovation in Mummy films. While the 1959 entry essentially served as a remix of the previous established plots, the three following films would each feature unique Mummies with differing backstories, none of whom had ever appeared before—or have reappeared since.

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