Curses, Corpses, and Cheops: The Surprisingly Feminine Origins of Mummy Literature 

“He saw it rise gradually—he heard the dry, bony fingers rattle as it drew them forth—he felt its tremendous grip—human nature could bear no more—his senses were rapidly deserting him; he felt, however, the fixed steadfast eyes of Cheops still glowing upon his failing orbs, as the lamp gave a sudden flash, and then all was darkness!” – Jane Webb Loudon, The Mummy!

[Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) (r. 2589-2566 BC)]

A few weeks ago, I was thinking of doing an entry about mummy curses, be it ancient curse tablets or the hysteria around the Tutankhamun dig and the death Lord Canarvon. But in the process, I ended up down a rabbit hole about mummy curses in literature and the early years of the horror and science fiction genres as we know them. While many people know Mary Shelley gave birth to modern horror and sci fi with Frankenstein in 1818, what you might not know is that women authors are also the inventors of the mummy subgenre of this literary sphere.

[Well, most people know about Frankenstein…]

So today I want to talk about the two mothers of mummy horror and their work: Jane Webb Loudon and Louisa May Alcott (surprise!). Webb Loudon gave us the trope of the reanimated mummy in her novel The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), and Alcott gave us the trope of the mummy’s curse in her short story Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy’s Curse (1869). Despite these groundbreaking innovations, Webb Loudon’s novel has long been out of print and Alcott’s non-juvenile writing has only begun to be re-examined, neither being fates these works deserve and I’d like to spend some time raising them from the muck of literary history. Because without these two ideas, you don’t get Boris Karloff or Brendan Fraser, and what fun would that be?

Much like the teenaged Mary Shelley, Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858) was only twenty when she wrote The Mummy! a decade after the publication of the former’s Frankenstein. Though unlike the oft-repeated tale of Shelley first constructing the plot of her novel as the result of a ghost storytelling contest among her and her bohemian cohorts in the mountains of Switzerland, Webb Loudon (at the time merely Jane Webb)’s circumstances would have been much more recognizable to the eternally-hustling Louisa Alcott. As she recounts in The Mummy!’s prologue, the sudden death of Webb Loudon’s father in 1824 left her with the realization “that it would be necessary to do something for my support.” Obviously influenced by Frankenstein, and likely the general Egyptology mania that swept Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798-1801), she constructed a “strange, wild” novel about a mummy brought back to life, not by the invented science of the day as the monster is in Shelley’s novel, but by the imagined technology of an England three hundred years in the future. In a Dante-esque touch, Webb Loudon says the idea came to her in a dream, where an angelic figure gave her a scroll which dispensed to her information about the future.

As it alludes to in its full title, The Mummy! takes place in the year 2126. England is still a monarchy ruled by a queen (cue me saying, “Oh god, Liz really does plan to live forever…”). Sadly for Her Majesty, the queen of England is not in fact her, but a young woman named Claudia. Prior to the reign of Claudia’s predecessor, England had abolished the monarchy, but after a prolonged period of political experimentation and anarchy, the monarchy had been reestablished through giving the crown to a princess descended from the former royal family. This precedent set, the rule is established that the queen will remain unmarried and her successor will be elected among her female relatives between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. I use the word “elected” pretty loosely, because while the people nominally get a say in this, the choosing of the queen is largely engineered by the nobility (sorry, England, you’ll still have them) and the reestablished monarchy is an absolute one (after the anarchy scare, the people were willing to do anything for stability—the old story). Another thing that apparently gets tossed out in the tumult is the Church of England, because this England is entirely Catholic again and the priesthood is once again a political force. I guess what I’m saying to my readers in the UK is buckle up—the next century is going to be a ride. But in case you think I’m gloating, Webb Loudon is also quick to point out that the great American experiment Englishmen of her own era were so certain was going to implode in on itself in a crass, mob-ruled dumpster fire is going exactly as expected.

[Wait a sec…]

Our nominal protagonist is Edric Montagu, the second son of Sir Ambrose Montagu, a aristocratic descendant of the family of that name from Webb Loudon’s time. We’re presented with the classic juxtaposition of the dreamy philosophy student Edric and his older brother Edmund, who is the adventurous military hero and their father’s favorite. While Edmund is off winning renown in battles on the continent, Edric is consumed by the idea of reanimating a corpse to uncover the secrets of the grave. He and his tutor, the slightly ridiculous Dr. Entwerfen, think they can accomplish this by successfully restoring a dead body’s circulatory system, which they believe will bring back the person with their whole being (including intellect and soul) intact. Entwerfen suggests an Egyptian mummy because of how well-preserved they are with all of their organs, and the mummy of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Cheops (Khufu) in particular, whose mummy had been recently found in an undiscovered chamber within the Great Pyramid.

[Keep looking, archeologists! He’s in their somewhere!]

Now Sir Ambrose is a boyhood friend of the duke of Cornwall, a relative of the royal family, and the guardian of the two likeliest candidates for succession to the throne should anything happen to Queen Claudia: his daughter, Elvira, and his niece, Rosabella (whose father, the duke’s younger brother Edgar, died under scandalous and mysterious circumstances no one will talk about). Because Claudia herself is young, neither of the girls are expected to become queen and the duke has engaged them to Sir Ambrose’s boys, Elvira to Edmund and Rosabella to Edric. But of course, in classic Shakespearean fashion, none of the kids are into these matches. Edmund adores Elvira, who isn’t in love with him, and Edric and Rosabella can’t stand each other, partly because Rosabella is desperate to have Edmund. A huge parental blowout between Edric and his father on this topic provides the opportunity for Edric and Dr. Entwerfen to abscond to Egypt for their experiment, as well as gives Rosabella the freedom to scheme with her own tutor, the calculating Father Morris, as how to get Edmund away from her indifferent cousin.

Arrived in Egypt (by air, because Webb Loudon anticipates that will be the preferred mode of transportation, though she thinks we’ll all be balloonists), Edric and Entwerfen get into Cheops’ magnificent burial chamber (depicted as most ancient Egyptian temples are, rather than the glorified cubbyholes we’ve found in the pyramids). Although he’s been the more enthusiastic up until this point, Entwerfen starts to have second thoughts, but Edric pushes through both of their doubts and successfully reanimates Cheops’ corpse through some vaguely-described electrical device reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein’s invention. The mummy awakens, but the sight of him is so terrifying that Edric and Entwerfen both faint, and Cheops simply wanders off without them. By the time our heroes come to, the mummy is gone and has stolen their balloon, leaving them at the mercy of a superstitious and angry colonial mob (Egypt being depicted as largely a joint Anglo-American corporate dominion at this point).

Meanwhile, back in England, Edmund has returned a war hero and Cheops gate crashes a parade thrown in his honor, during which Queen Claudia is injured in the resulting confusion. She then dies suddenly after seeming to be on the mend and aristocratic intrigue pops up in her wake as factions form around the sweet but somewhat cold Elvira, and the fiery, proud Rosabella. After his startling arrival, Cheops hangs around dispensing oracular advice to everyone as Edric and Entwerfen struggle to return to home.

[Jane Webb Loudon]

Through its second and third acts, the story largely becomes a political romantic drama which the titular mummy weaves in and out of at his own discretion. This might irritate a reader looking for lots of living-dead action, but it fits Webb Loudon’s Cheops. This is no linen-wrapped zombie or a monster made of spare parts who must learn how to be human—Edric does what he sets out to do and brings back a fully cognizant being with all of his former personality and memories. Cheops has to adapt to this brave new world, but he comes out of his tomb fully aware and communicative, and he has his own agenda from minute one—an agenda that isn’t clear until nearly the end of the book. By then, the only thing that separates him from the protagonists is a slightly archaic speech pattern (which Webb Loudon delineates by using a lot of thees and thous) and his appearance, which outside of his haughty visage and commanding height, is frightening to the others because of his gaunt, desiccated frame, his burning eyes, and sepulchral laugh. He is disturbing, but not because he is especially malevolent, but rather that he never really sheds his otherworldliness. In this way, he is perhaps an echo of Frankenstein’s monster, who is not initially a creature bent in destruction. But more than the creature, I see Mary’s husband Percy’s Ozymandias in Webb Loudon’s Cheops. Not just in the similar “sneer of cold command” which is the mummy’s default expression, but also in the sense of lost time that Shelley’s poem evokes. Cheops is a man out of time who, when he isn’t playing mind games with the foolish and cruel people around him, is often shown gazing out at an alien, changed world that he tries to reconcile with the one he knew and people long gone. “Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away”, indeed.

[And in another callback to Ozymandias, my paperback copy of The Mummy! fittingly uses a photo of Ramses II’s mummy on its cover—the New Kingdom pharaoh’s many monuments being Shelley’s inspiration for the poem.]

Unlike Webb Loudon, American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) needs little introduction, having enjoyed continual international fame since the mid-19th century as the author of Little Women, its related sequels, and half a dozen other novels and short story collections for children. But as I alluded to earlier, for the length of her productive literary career Alcott was the queen of the literary hustle, even after the success of Little Women largely delivered her and her perpetually indebted family from the financial instability that she depicted so memorably in the novel. As so often happens to people who grow up poor, Alcott was clearly terrified of finding herself in those straits again and as a result, she wrote feverishly and submitted a near-constant stream of stories for newspaper publication. Many of these were for children, but she also wrote large numbers of Gothic melodramas for a more sensational audience (just as Jo does for The Volcano in Little Women). And because she had no Professor Baer to tell her not to, she continued to do so throughout her life, though she mostly stop publishing them once her children’s books hit it big. Up until around twenty years ago, these stories attracted little attention beyond Alcott’s lifetime, but that has started to change as readers and scholars have started to take a more holistic approach to Alcott’s output.

Lost in a Pyramid falls into this adult Gothic side of Alcott’s oeuvre and is one of the last published during her lifetime. In the story, we meet Paul Forsyth, who reluctantly relates to his eager fiancée Evelyn a story about the time he was temporarily lost in the “Pyramid of Cheops” (the Great Pyramid) when she finds a gold box with three scarlet seeds in it. Paul is there with a friend, Professor Niles, an antiquities enthusiast, who is injured during their troubles, necessitating them to wait to be found within the pyramid. The two men don’t encounter Cheops himself, but they find themselves in a chamber of empty mummy caskets, plus one extant mummy. In order to attract their rescuers to their location with smoke, they end up breaking up the caskets and burning them. But the caskets burn too quickly and the men are forced to burn the mummy, on which they find a message that says she was a great sorceress and anyone who disturbs her rest will suffer a terrible curse. Feeling they have no choice, the men burn her anyway and are soon rescued. They take some trinkets that had been wrapped in the mummy as souvenirs, of which the box of seeds was chosen by Paul. Evelyn begs to be allowed to plant the seeds, but Paul refuses, claiming it’s too dangerous and throws them into the fire.

Several months later, on their wedding day, Paul admits to Evelyn—who’s been sickly—that he found one of the seeds hadn’t burned and he sent it to Professor Niles to see if it would blossom. He tells her that the professor reports that it has blossomed into a beautiful white flower with scarlet stamens that look like cobra tongues. Evelyn admits that she knows this already and shows Paul that she has been growing an identical flower after she found one of the other seeds hadn’t landed in the fire either (God, Paul has the worst aim…). She wears the blossom at their wedding and recovers her former vivacity until she appears to tire in the evening. Paul puts her to bed and as he is leaving her, he receives a frantic message from a friend of Professor Niles, telling him that the professor has dropped dead after wearing the mysterious flower, which turns out to be a poison that drains the vitality of the wearer until they are either dead or mad. Paul rushes to remove the flower from Evelyn, and while he manages to save her life, she remains in a permanent catatonic state. Paul then spends the rest of his life caring for the lifeless Evelyn, the sorceress’ revenge on those who desecrated her mummy.

[Louisa May Alcott]

Lost in a Pyramid is far too short to be categorized among Alcott’s best work, but it is interesting that it is a story that she was writing concurrently with Little Women. In fact, it even shows up in its more famous sibling, as Alcott has Jo attend a lecture on the pyramids, which encourages her to use exotic locales for the sensational stories she’s writing for the newspapers while she’s in New York. And while the story is quick and melodramatic, complete with vengeful death and stricken heroines, critics have pointed out it has much of the arch-feminism Alcott was known for and which she surreptitiously sowed into the petticoats of Little Women, even after her readers badgered her into weddings and motherhood for the surviving March girls. It has been noted that unlike many mummy’s curse stories contemporary with Lost in a Pyramid, or indeed most of the ones that followed it, the mummy in this story is female, but not an orientalized sexual conquest for a Anglo-European man as is much more usual of the period. It is the dead sorceress who holds all of the power and it’s her will that moves the plot along. Two men violate her bodily autonomy, and in the end she takes everything from them as their punishment. Like Little Women’s avatar of Victorian feminine acquiescence, Beth, the conventional Evelyn can’t survive as anything other than a passive shell as suffers for her husband’s choices and her “typically feminine” curiosity. For her naivety and her ignorance, she is condemned to a living death while the unnamed sorceress in death has enough agency to rule the fates of the living. Like many things the seemingly straightforward Alcott wrote, there’s plenty of depth under even her most pedestrian Gothic storytelling.

As usual, my conclusion is that both of these women deserve a lot more recognition for these major contributions to such an enduringly popular genre, especially the largely ignored Webb Loudon. Her prose isn’t quite as profound as Mary Shelley’s, but she combines the innovative futurist vision of Frankenstein with the wry social voice of Jane Austen, and the result is entertaining and really funny at times, even if the characters are largely stock archetypes and plot is often conventionally Gothic. She creates a believable futuristic society that isn’t entirely utopian or dystopian, which is frankly something many other writers in the genre struggle with. So to sum up, I’m just going to list off some of my favorite inventions and story beats from The Mummy! in an attempt to get all of you to go download it off of Project Gutenberg:

[Patrons Leaving the Paris Opera in the Year 2000 (Albert Robida, c. 1902)]

— We have robots working as servants, judges, and lawyers (you know, the easily-automated professions 😉)

— Ireland is independent and has its own king; Spain is republic ruled from Morocco like some kind of reverse Reconquista; Switzerland is ruled by a dictator; France seems to be constantly at the mercy of England and the emperor of Germany; Timbuktu is a thriving African center of commerce. And we’ve already discussed the US of A…

— We can harness clouds to provide rain to agriculture when needed.

— Foldable glassware is a thing.

— Kensington Palace is now the main London prison complex, but prison reform means the “cells” remain as nice as the royal apartments were; it seems to have been converted to this use because that part of London became too overdeveloped and ugly for anything else.

— Mail is delivered by letter cannon and the letter balls are caught by giant nets set up by each town. Letters are accompanied by a wooden wiffle ball that makes enough noise moving through the air to let you know mail is incoming.

— Sir Ambrose’s brother is depicted as having something that is clearly a modern espresso maker.

— One of the first things Cheops says when he is fully awake is that he’s looking for his queen, whom he calls Arsinoë. Now, obviously Arsinoë (like Cheops) is a Greek name, not an Egyptian one, nor was it the name of either of the pharaoh Khufu’s known queens. But his principle wife’s name was Meretities, which in Middle Egyptian means “Beloved of Her Father”… which in Greek is… Cleopatra…

— Light and heat are provided by “chemical preparations” and coal is no longer used. But because the London of Webb Loudon’s time was always covered in coal dust, “antique finish” in 2126 is fake coal dust on things to make them look old.

— Ladies at court wear some kind of gas tube apparatus as a headdress that produces colored flames that form fancy patterns and designs. Pants are in for women and men are dressing in Renaissance short cloaks and Van Dykes. 

— Communication happens through a mirror-based telegraph system. Some have called Webb Loudon’s description as a kind of proto-internet, and it is, but messages are symbols and things like fireworks, so it’s like the internet if you could only use emojis. And like with the older folk of today, poor old Sir Ambrose is constantly needing someone else to interpret the messages.

— Bad news, guys: medicine is going to go back to bleeding people in a hundred years 😬… And speaking of medicine, Dr. Entwerfen mentions internment of dead bodies was prohibited within the city limits of London after a “dreadfully infectious disease” decimated the population about two hundred years prior. Sure, Webb Loudon isn’t talking about Covid, but two hundred years prior to 2126 is the 1920s—when Spanish influenza rocked Europe. A little accidental prophesy for you.

— Dr. Entwerfen also has a collection of 19th century English folksongs and Webb Loudon is hilarious in describing him trying to interpret the lyrics. Like how “tol de rol lol” must mean something, but damned if he can figure it out.

— Class divisions still exist in England, but universal education has made it so the lower classes are so erudite that the upper classes demonstrate their breeding by deliberately using the simplest language and eating the plainest foods. All of the (human) servants of the protagonists are comically verbose and at one point, a cook ruins two meals because she’s too engrossed in copying the Apollo Belvedere to concern herself with watching the roasts. Some modern readers find this ribbing of universal education snobby on Webb Loudon’s part, but honestly the upper classes are just as ridiculous, so I don’t find it as mean-spirited as others did. Come on, how can you not laugh at the idea that refined ladies will only drink beer because wine and champagne have been co-opted by the masses?

— But all of this is going to be fine because true 22nd century universal education will make us all able to understand every language and move our ears at will (because our brains and muscles are so conditioned)!

[The Apollo Belvedere]
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