Friday, October 26, 2012
The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker: A Review
The 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars follows the attempts to revive a five-thousand-year-old Egyptian queen. The story opens with London barrister Malcolm Ross receiving a late-night summons to the home of Margaret Trelawney. Margaret's father, an Egyptologist, is comatose, and an attempt has been made on his life, or so it seems. His house, and especially his vast bedroom, is a veritable museum, with Egyptian artifacts, from mummies to sarcophagi, making for a strange, sinister setting.
Dragged from his sickbed, his wrist mutilated in an attempt to remove a safe key he keeps on a bracelet, Trelawney is put back to bed and a round-the-clock vigil is kept on him. From there, the mystery deepens. Some of Trelawney's wounds seem to be made by a cat; Margaret owns a cat, but swears it was safely tucked away. An ancient mummified cat is in the room, but it clearly couldn't be the culprit...could it? Trelawney is dragged from his bed more than once, but who could be slipping in to do it? There are people all around, including Margaret, who always seems to be the first by her father's side. What causes otherwise vigilant watchers to drowse? A nurse falls into the same kind of coma as Mr. Trelawney - could it be caused by the mummification substances that infuse the mummy and its wrappings? Suddenly, a visitor appears, an old colleague of Mr. Trelawney, bringing lamps from the tomb of Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh far ahead of her time.
Eventually Trelawney rouses from his coma. From then, the plot quickens. Trelawney and his colleague have finally put together the items needed to revive the Queen from her five-thousand-year-old slumber. Much discussion is had about reincarnation, and it seems Margaret may well be the old Queen in new guise. Margaret's increasingly strange moods could hint at anything, from frayed nerves to the internal struggle between Margaret and Queen Tera.
Soon, everything in the house is packed up, lock, stock, and barrel, and moved to the Trelawney's seaside mansion. From there, Trelawney prepares a strange ritual in a cavern within the cliff. Something seems wrong, but Trelawney bulls ahead, unmindful of increasingly unsettling omens. Margaret's mood and demeanor changes moment by moment. It seems that Queen Tera reaches from beyond the grave to tell her tale, and to urge the ritual onward. Promises and vows are made. Yet, how much stock can be placed in what Margaret/Tera says? Her erratic behavior alarms Malcolm, but no one else seems to pay much attention.
The trappings of a classic Victorian-era tale are present. As mentioned, the house is full of Egyptian tomb furnishings, including sarcophagi and mummies. Trelawney has left detailed and ludicrously uninformative instructions behind. Servants quit as strange events unfold. Margaret and Malcolm experience instant and oh-so-chaste love at first sight, with soulful looks and sincere pledges of devotion aplenty. Doctors drop everything to make days-long house calls. Detectives arrive and bumble around. Pseudoscientific theories and spiritualist ideas are earnestly proposed, intermingled, and expounded upon. There is the old seaside mansion pummeled by a howling storm. There is even the classic "lights out" bit at a climactic moment. There is a definitely spooky atmosphere to it all.
This book left me unsettled and baffled. For much of the book, the vast majority of it, in fact, it reads as a standard Victorian horror story. The quest to find the tomb of Queen Tera, an Egyptian monarch learned in sorcery and science, is related in tales told by characters, and leads up to turn-of-the-century London. Stoker's original ending, though, is startling and sudden, and is strikingly hopeless. A reprint in 1912 saw a revision of the book that changed it to a much happier ending. It's not clear if Stoker, who had been pressured to change the ending, wrote the newer conclusion, or if the publisher took matters into their own hands. Stoker was ill by that time, so it seems likely the new ending isn't by his hand. Regardless, that newer ending is far less memorable, even if it provides more of a conclusion to the story than the original. Neither ending really resolves many of the questions posed by the plot, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The main question left unanswered is: what was Queen Tera's motivation? Dracula had a more straightforward agenda: direct, unsubtle, easy to grasp. Queen Tera is much more inscrutable in her plans, which stretch across five millennia. This mystery provides much of the depth to the story, and lends a chill to the ending. The questions that I still turn over in my mind show the power of the book, and especially its ending.
I've seen some mention of this book as the source for the 1932 Boris Karloff movie The Mummy. It really isn't, though there are a few elements that are familiar between the two. Apparently there have been screen adaptations of this book, though I haven't seen them as of this writing. The way the book ends would not translate well to a film, I believe, or at least it would not have the same impact as the book.
There is a lot to like about The Jewel of Seven Stars. There are also flaws: it starts slowly, and only really builds momentum around the last third of the book. A couple of characters make decisions that seem out-of-character and make no sense. However, when all the pieces begin to fall into place, there is an air of fate to the proceedings, an inevitability to the conclusion, that seems to suddenly gallop upon the reader, leaving them shaken and wondering. To me, that's a sign of a good horror story.