Ballentine Books, New York
For this year’s “Halloween book review,” I chose a relatively early and relatively obscure novel by Anne Rice, an author better known for her multi-volume “Vampire Chronicles” series. In fact, I think it could be argued that The Mummy is actually one of her very best efforts—a tighter, less sprawling and more focused book than her more popular tales of the Vampire Lestat—and at times a lot more scary!
The Mummy builds on the well-known basic plot of the Boris Karloff 1930s movies, which were then replicated in the mid-century Hammer Productions versions starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and then most recently reiterated in the digitally enhanced special effects extravaganzas starring Brendan Fraser (and in “Mummy II,” the Rock). But Anne Rice then spins the story in her own special way, introducing complex and haunted characters that weave their way through a dream-like landscape of 1920s England and Egypt. Sexual themes loom large in Rice’s invented worlds and they tend to ambiguous in nature and often violent in practice.
The book opens with the description of a Howard Carter/King Tut-like tomb-opening by archaeologist Lawrence Stratford. The tomb is not, however, made of cut stone but of Italian marble and the hieroglyphics etched into the marble are, to say the least, perplexing. They read as follows:
Robbers of the Dead, Look away from this tomb lest you wake its occupant, whose wrath cannot be contained. Ramses the Damned is my name. Once Ramses the Great of Upper and Lower Egypt; Slayer of the Hittites, Builder of the Temples; Beloved of the People; and immortal guardian of the kings and queens of Egypt throughout time. In the year of the death of the Great Queen Cleopatra, as Egypt becomes a Roman province, I commit myself to eternal darkness; beware, all those who would let the rays of the sun pass through this door. (p.4)
This bewildering curse linked Ramses II and Cleopatra, who were separated in time by a millennium, and it is on this puzzling conundrum that Anne Rice hangs her story of eternal life, eternal passion, and eternal madness. While the craft of archaeology is but an incidental backdrop to this story of doomed lovers moving in and out of time, Rice does evoke the ambiance of a by-gone era when archaeology—and especially Egyptian archaeology—stirred the interests and imaginations of the citizenry of America and particularly western Europe.
So as the nights grow longer and more blustery, curl up in front of the fireplace and let Anne Rice transport you into the world of The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned!