Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Return from the Dead: A Brief Review

Return from the Dead is a collection of stories dealing with mummies, edited and introduced by David Stuart Davies. The bulk of the book is comprised by The Jewel of Seven Stars, a book I recently looked at here. The balance of the book is made up of short stories and, in one instance, an excerpt.

The first story, The Mummy, is the excerpted one. It's derived from an 1827 trilogy of novels called The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, by Jane Webb. It's an imaginative story, with a greened-up Egypt colonized and dominated by Americans and British, and balloon-travelling adventurers arriving at the Great Pyramid to revive Cheops by way of electricity. The tone of the story is both whimsical and sinister, an odd combination. It's a brief glimpse into a larger story that reminds me a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger stories some 70+ years later.

Next, Edgar Allan Poe has an entry with Some Words with a Mummy. This story surprised me; given the author, I expected a dark, macabre tale. Instead, I found it to be a satirical piece, with a group of scientists managing to use electricity (again!) to revive a mummy. Instead of mayhem and horror, though, the revived mummy turns out to be an urbane aristocrat of an apparently more civilized time. He proceeds to settle himself into his new time, garbed in finest 19th-century fashion, sipping wine and puffing cigars, and talking down to his saviors. It's a mildly amusing story, infused with the absurd, meant to point up the foibles of Poe's time. I found it a bit tedious, overall, and while I can't fault Poe for a different type of story than I'm used to from him, I was still a little disappointed there was no real horror to be found here.

Arthur Conan Doyle makes the first of two appearances in this volume with The Ring of Thoth. This is a brief mood piece, and manages to pack a good amount of the macabre into its few pages. A student of Egyptology travels from England to the Louvre, where he encounters a strange museum caretaker who tells him a spellbinding story of love and loss and immortality that has become a burden. It's apparent that the bare premise of this story was used for the 1932 film, The Mummy, with Boris Karloff. Doyle's story is tantalizingly short, evoking a sense of wonder and dread. Its melancholy ending seems wholly appropriate. Still, somewhere in the Nile delta there lives an immortal cat...

Doyle finishes up the collection with Lot No. 249. Oxford students meddle with ancient magics, with predictable results. Regardless of predictability, Doyle crafts a well-done, creepy story, with a lot of atmosphere. I have no idea what Oxford is like, especially Oxford of the late-19th century, but Doyle's attention to detail, from descriptions of the architecture to the sports talk amongst the university students, rings true to me. There are some nightmarish moments, too, which are even more horrific because the world and the characters in it are convincing. The ending is, to me, refreshingly amusing in how straightforward it is. I winced a bit, and the words of Indiana Jones rang in my mind as the conclusion drew down - "that should be in a museum!" This was a fun adventure story.

This Wordsworth Edition collection is worth a read. Besides the stories themselves, Davies' introduction is brief but informative, and gives literary and historical context. In addition, this book contains both endings for The Jewel of Seven Stars, which provides the reader a chance to decide for himself which is better - the bleak original, or the more upbeat, but less memorable, revision. What's interesting to me is the implicit paucity of good mummy stories in general, given the selection presented here. Besides The Jewel of Seven Stars, it's a pretty thin volume.

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