(2012) Roger Luckhurst, Oxford University Press, £18.99, hrdbk, 321pp, ISBN 978-0-199-69871-4
Okay, stick with me, I will get to the point eventually, but I have a friend called Betty McKellar, who is a great poet, 'The Murshiel Makar' they call her, or 'The Bard of Lochwinnoch' and one of her poems (funnily enough collected in her book of supernatural poems called Widdershins which I edited) is called 'The Last Defence' and is about her friend Margaret Orr who was sent to Egypt with her mother as a little girl because they thought the dry desert air might be good for her typhoid. Her father, the archaeologist, Arthur Mace, was working beside Howard Carter when the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in and little Margaret actually went down into the tomb. While another little girl, Frances Winlock, who accompanied her – who had TB – died in childhood, and Margaret's father died young in 1928, although Margaret herself lived well into her 80s. So does all that combination of events make or break a mummy's curse?
Subtitled 'The True History of a Dark Fantasy', Luckhurst, of course, cannot fail to start (in a first section entitled 'Part One : Curse Stories') by focussing on the aforementioned discovery and the sudden death of George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon. He was the sponsor of Carter's exhibition and died six weeks after the opening of the tomb: obviously for disturbing the dead, or so some would believe. The newspapers of the day ran riot with stories of a curse, although that might have had more to do with the Earl’s exclusive deal with The Times and their own inability to report on the true facts of the discovery. Spice was added to the story by the lights of Cairo going out when Carnarvon died, and way back in England his faithful dog supposedly howled and dropped dead. And so the blue touch paper of superstition was lit. No sooner had it caught fire than people who had visited Egypt on their travels, and 'acquired' some objects, thought it would be in their best interests to unload them on the British Museum. That flame continues to burn, and tales of Egyptian curses remain within the public consciousness and popular culture to this day.
Luckhurst spent ten years researching his book, and it shows, delving into even earlier stories of curses than the Tutankhamen one and getting his hands on as many unreleased and unseen source materials as he could manage. We get the tale of Thomas Douglas Murray who was a gentleman explorer and member of the Ghost Club and his connection with item number 22542 in the British Museum, or the 'Unlucky Mummy' (although strictly speaking it isn't a mummy at all but a painted coffin lid); as well as the story of Walter Ingram and the Coffin of Nesmin with the 'cursed' Ingram being killed by an elephant. Following these cases, Luckhurst delves into the reasons why curses caught the imagination of so many. These ranged from: Colonial guilt; guilt, also about desecrating the graves of the dead; the shifting relationship with Egypt and perceptions towards Egyptians; and the fuelling of the supernatural elements of such curses through the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and Algernon Blackwood; as well a blossoming of the theme through horror films, and the adoption of Egyptian magick by certain occult groups in Britain.
All in all, The Mummy’s Curse makes fascinating reading and given its publisher, this is a learned tome, but not a weighty one. While being 321 pages long, Luckhurst's thesis accounts for 242 pages, while the remainder of the book accounts is taken up by extensive notes, a bibliography and an index which might seem a bit pricey at £18.99, but is money well spent, and I look forward in ten year's time of Luckhurst, if he feels inclined, bringing out something similar looking at the origins of the vampire or zombie myth and their position in society. Unlikely, I suppose, but one can only hope.
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