- The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy by Roger Luckhurst
Roger Luckhurst’s captivating study tells the origin story of the mummy’s curse, a popular superstition whose roots extend not to ancient Egypt, but to nineteenthcentury England. The author structures his book as a historical and cultural excavation, beginning with a thorough inquiry into the curses associated with famous mummies such as King Tut and the British Museum’s so-called unlucky mummy (which is actually not a mummy, but a painted coffin lid), and then exploring the contexts that [End Page 139] laid the groundwork for such beliefs. Part 1 of The Mummy’s Curse offers riveting accounts of the acquisition and distribution of mummies as uncanny artifacts and of the pervasive superstitions that accompanied and eventually superseded them. The three chapters in this section present the narratives of wealthy British collectors of Egyptian mummies (George Herbert Carnarvon, Thomas Douglas Murray, and Walter Herbert Ingram) whose subsequent deaths were attributed to their acquisitions. As Luckhurst argues, such stories are fueled by the types of social anxieties associated with gothic fictions more generally, and thus the “supernatural supplement to the traffic in ancient objects might be regarded as a displaced form of class resentment” (74). Part 2 of the book goes on to explore the constellation of factors that led to an abrupt shift in the perception of mummies from wonder to terror during the nineteenth century, eventually transforming the mummy into one of the most pervasive monsters of literary and cinematic fictions.
This section begins by describing the mummy craze that took over England following Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The opening of the sensational Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1821, the fad of public mummy unwrappings in the 1830s, and the highly popular British Museum mummy exhibit contributed to the “phantom presence of Egypt in London” (90). Enchantment gradually gave way to fear as anxieties emerged around the categorical instability of the mummy, “the quintessential uncanny object that prompts magical thinking about dead things that might come back to life” (145). The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the proliferation of gothic fiction centered around mummies, particularly following the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. Popular authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Marsh, Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker, and H. Rider Haggard produced fantastic tales about mummies coming back to life to avenge their commodification by British hands. Luckhurst writes that Haggard’s fictions in particular “always return us to the scene of the crime, with artefacts that break open in uncanny ways and return to speak the secret histories of things from beyond the grave” (206). These narratives were accompanied by a widespread fear of mesmerism, paganism, and dark magic, all of which came to be associated with Egypt’s disturbing implantation within British culture. The book concludes with an afterword that uses the looting of the Cairo Museum following the Arab Spring, and subsequent rumors of destroyed mummies, to extend the narrative of cursed imperial things into the twenty-first century. Luckhurst concludes with the wide-ranging theory that “wherever there is imperial occupation, there is a reserve of supernaturalism, an occult supplement to allegedly enlightened rule that becomes a currency for acknowledging and even negotiating the consequences of this colonial violence” (241–42).
Luckhurst’s book offers a provocative assemblage of observations about the ways in which the mummy came to occupy the Victorian and Edwardian imagination. While the mummy has attracted substantial critical attention over the last decade, The Mummy’s Curse is the only book-length study to provide a sustained analysis of the historical, cultural, and literary impact of this figure on nineteenth-century Britain. (Jasmine Day’s 2006 book of the same name extends its analysis of the mummy’s curse far into the twenty-first century.) Luckhurst’s ambitious approach does have some shortcomings, however. For instance, the book tends to contextualize its material too broadly, thereby...