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AN INTERVIEW ON BBC RADIO WALES…

Essie was featured on Phil – Phil the Shelf – Rickman’s Books Programme on BBC Radio Wales this week, in the excellent company of John Connolly, and Matt Lucas. A recording of the programme is here, and Essie comes in at about 11.18. The programme is available to ‘listen again’ for the next 28 days.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 22.12.23Phil Rickman, author of supernatural and mystery novels, who also hosts the BBC Radio Wales Book Programme

SALON FOR THE CITY ~ THE UNLUCKY MUMMY

 

The 50th Salon For The City, held at the Westminster Reference Library ~ just at the back of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square ~ was the most inspiring event. As ever this was thanks to Stephen Coates, the salon’s founder, who created this opportunity for writers, artists and historians to talk about their knowledge of the capital city of London.

Beginning with a whistle stop tour through the city’s architectural history from the ever engaging Doctor Matthew Green, the evening’s theme continued with several 5 minute talks from previous Salon alumni, each one of them then showcasing a favourite London character. 

My own five minute slot was all about The Unlucky Mummy, on display in the British Museum today, and below is the transcript of that talk …

Pearson's_Magazine_1909_with_Unlucky_Mummy.jpgImage of the Unlucky Mummy as featured on the cover of Pearson’s Magazine in 1909

I fear I may cause confusion tonight, with the subject of my five-minute talk originating in Egypt. But, as much of London’s great history has been built on those who’ve settled here, often coming from all over the world, I hope you’ll indulge my preference for talking about an antiquity … a relic dating back in time to around 950 BC, and most probably from a temple in Thebes … though I feel it may quite rightly claim to have earned its Londoner status now; having been in the city since the late 1880’s, on display in the British Museum’s Egyptian rooms … since when a great web of intrigue has been built up around it.

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In fact, it’s not even a mummy as such, but the image of a woman painted on a relief of plaster and wood; the image of the person once contained below the coffin lid. Who does she even represent? Well, many say a high priestess who once served in the temple of Amen Ra, and who, since having resided here, has been called The Unlucky Mummy. Unlucky because her spirit is said to bring tragedy or dreadful luck to many who have seen her form.

This curse is something I reference in my novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, in which the young Leda’s father explains –

‘Yes, it’s called The Unlucky Mummy, found back in the 1880s, when three Englishmen travelled to Egypt, where a terrible fate befell them all after one of the party paid thousands of pounds to possess the ancient relic. Later on, that very night, the man walked into the desert night and was never seen alive again … and that event occurring soon after the sarcophagus had been delivered to his rooms. The second man was to lose an arm when a servant asked to clean his gun then accidentally fired it off. The third returned to England to find himself entirely ruined when the bank in which his wealth was held had catastrophically failed, after which he was reduced to selling matches on the streets to live.

And that was not the end of it! Some years afterwards, when the mummy had been acquired by the British Museum in London, the night guards started speaking of some strange and ghostly happenings, with objects flying round the room, with banging sounds and agonising wails that seemed to emanate from underneath the coffin’s lid. Why, a journalist who was brought in to investigate the strange events was then tormented in his mind, when a photograph he’d taken that showed the casket’s painted face ~ a face normally quite serene ~ had changed into a mask of such a cruel and Hellish countenance… he lost his wits and killed himself.’

 

Well, that extract from my novel is just one variation on a theme – and is certainly NOT the end of it. Before reaching the British Museum, one household in which the coffin lay experienced strange phenomena, such as glass and ornaments being smashed, or the sounds of footsteps, or flickering lights in the attics in which it was – in final desperation – stored away and out of sight; but not before the entire staff of servants left the house in fright.

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Another story claimed the curse was the cause of The Titanic’s fate, with the Mummy having been on board at the time when the tragedy occurred. However, this was nonsense. It was on display in the British Museum then. But, like many an urban folk tale, the myth was embellished considerably, quoted in papers and magazines as being a genuine ghost story – and all in an era when spiritualism was reaching levels of hysteria.

Bertram-Fletcher-Robinson.jpgBetram Fletcher Robinson

What could be more sinister than an Egyptian Mummy’s ghostly curse, and one that circulated long before Howard Carter made his own discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, with all the myths abounding after that, when many of those involved on the dig met with sudden tragic ends … as did the journalist, Betram Robinson Fletcher, who’d set about debunking the myth of the Unlucky Mummy, despite a serious warning from no other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who said, after the tragedy ~

“It was caused by Egyptian ‘elementals’ … because Mr Robinson had begun an investigation of the stories of the mummy’s malevolence. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty if this is true … but I warned Mr Robinson … I told him he was tempting fate by pursuing his enquiries …The immediate cause of death was typhoid fever, but that is the way in which the elementals guarding the mummy might act.”

Have you been to the British Museum. Have you observed this malevolent force yourself? Have you felt a little feverish? Well, whatever the truth of the Unlucky Mummy, I love the fact that its story is now engrained in London’s history… one of the most exotic and mysterious of characters.

THEDA BARA ~ VAMP OF THE SILENT SCREEN …

theda-baraTheda Bara

I still feel as if I’m coming up for air after writing The Last Days of Leda Grey. It was such an immersive experience, and part of the novel’s allure for me was creating its central character. Leda Grey is her own unique fictional self, but visually I was  inspired by a real-life movie star ~ and that was Theda Bara.

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Often called the first celluloid sex symbol, Theda was known as a ‘vamp’ ~ with that vampire term alluding to women who sexually prey on men, rather than actual blood suckers or anything supernatural; though they often did star in spooky films and possessed an otherworldly air.

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All these themes were strongly in my mind when I started to think of Leda Grey, even having my fictional character star in a film about an Egyptian queen ~ partly based on Cleopatra, and partly on H Rider Haggard’s sensational Victorian novel, She.

However, whereas my character lives in the seaside town of Brightland (very strongly based on Brighton), Theda was born and raised in New York before locating to LA. There, she was hired by Fox Studios to act in many of their films, including Cleopatra, which was one of the earliest epics and which led the way for many more based on this exotic queen ~ with actresses like Elizabeth Taylor defined by the glamour of the part. 

Theda was soon a major star. She earned more than $4,000 a week. Thousands were hired to build her sets, while she herself would actively research the props and costumes worn. This was during the time when women were still campaigning for the vote and the hope for more equality. But Theda was independent and strong.  A sexy dominant femme fatale who could be compared to Madonna today. A sensual and bold persona enhanced by risque stage attire; which was often so outrageous that several scenes from Theda’s films were deemed to be immoral by the public boards of censorship.

Of course this helped to enhance her fame, which only spread yet further when the studio’s publicity machine called her the ‘serpent of the Nile’, falsely claiming that Theda had been born to a beautiful French woman and a Saharan Arab sheik. More than a hint of things to come in Valentino’s desert films. However, unlike the lovers who would swoon when held in his strong arms, Theda Bara rarely played the second fiddle to her leading men. She fully understood her world and the power of the female sex, once offering this stark reply when asked about the roles she played …

‘I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin.’

Eventually, she did grow bored with playing the part of the femme fatale. When attempts at other roles then failed she married and quietly disappeared ~ and was lost to the public eye again when most of her films were destroyed in a fire at the studio warehouses.

Today, Theda’s flame is kept alight in the scraps of footage that survive, in which it’s very clear to see her confident charisma. And then, in the thousands of studio stills where we see the glory of her youth.

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What would Theda have been in the present day? Visually, she reminds me of Siouxsie Sioux, a star of the British punk music scene. She was darkly attractive and dangerous too. Nothing meek in the photographic gaze which still seems to defy us when we look at the stills from Theda’s silent films. A hundred years may well have passed since she played her Cleopatra role, but her image is iconic. A legend and a goddess. As illustrious as any stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

A version of this article first appeared in Electric Sheep magazine.