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THE UNLUCKY MUMMY

When I wrote The Last Days of Leda Grey, which is based on the earliest silent films, one of the dramas I imagined my fictional characters making was inspired by The Unlucky Mummy.

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

Many intriguing and eerie tales have built up around this relic, which dates back to around 950 BC. It is thought to have come from a temple in Thebes. However, since the late 1880’s it has been on display in the British Museum in London.

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It’s not a mummy as such, but the image of a woman painted on ‘coffin’ of plaster and wood. In effect it is the image of the person once buried inside it. But who might she have been? Well, some think a high priestess who served in the temple of Amen Ra. But, since being taken away from Egypt, her spirit is said to be restless, causing havoc and bringing bad luck to any who have a close connection.

In my novel, the Mummy’s curse is discussed by Leda Grey’s father…

‘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.’

That short extract from my novel is just one variation on a theme – and certainly not the whole story. Before reaching the British Museum, the residents of one house to which it had been delivered spoke of strange things occurring, such as ornaments being smashed, the sound of footsteps in the night, or flickering lights in the attic in which the mummy had been stored, after most of the family’s servants had threatened to leave the house.

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Another story claimed that the curse of The Unlucky Mummy was behind the The Titanic’s dreadful fate, with the Mummy being on board at the time of the tragedy. However, this is nonsense. At the time of the Titanic’s sinking the relic was already being displayed in the British Museum.

But, like many an urban folktale, the myth became embellished, often quoted in papers and magazines as being a genuine story; and all of this during an era when the belief in ghosts and spiritualism was reaching hysterical levels.

Bertram-Fletcher-Robinson.jpgBetram Fletcher Robinson

What could be more sinister than an Egyptian Mummy’s curse ~ a tale that was being  spoken about even before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb? Many of the men on that dig did meet with tragic ends, as did  Betram Robinson Fletcher, a journalist who was determined to debunk all the fanciful stories surrounding The Unlucky Mummy. At the time he had been warned not to try and meddle. Arthur Conan Doyle  also advised him to keep away from matters he did not understand. He also wrote of what  then followed …

“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.”

It sounds as if Conan Doyle was twisting the facts to suit his own fanciful interpretation. But, if you’ve seen The Unlucky Mummy on a trip to the British Museum did you feel any aura of evil, any chill in the atmosphere?

MY HAMMER HORROR MARATHON, STARTING WITH … THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

“We hold in the palms of our hands such secrets as have never been dreamed of.”

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Well, I saw it last night, and I’m still here to tell the tale of my viewing of The Curse of Frankenstein … the first in many others which I’m planning to be watching over the come the month.

In this film adaptation, the dreams of genius that are fated to end in tragic nightmare form in the gothic murky atmosphere of Frankenstein’s secret laboratories. Amid much hubbling and bubbling we view the miracle of ‘life’ when the scientist (Peter Cushing) achieves his aim of harnessing the force of electricity to successfully reanimate the body of a dog.

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Back in the later 1700s, not all that long before Mary Shelley wrote what was to be her ground-breaking science -fiction Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the idea of electricity as being the source of life was an exciting novel concept, with the Italian Galvani having discovered that ‘electromagetic’ forces caused convulsions in the muscles of the animals he worked on, giving the appearance of the dead come back to life.

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Galvani had a nephew, Giovani Aldini, who followed in the family ‘business’. He was famed for demonstrating his own scientific knowledge on the body of George Foster; a man who’d been condemned to hang after he’d drowned his wife and daughter in the Paddington canal. When Aldini then successfully electrified the corpse, all observers claimed to see the way its jaws begin to quiver, with the muscles of the face contorting in a ghoulish mask. One of the eyes suddenly opened. A hand was raised and fingers clenched as if to threaten its tormentor. Both of its feet began to shuffle back and forwards on the table…

A true life horror show.

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In the far from true-life horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, this gruesome theme is mirrored when Baron Frankenstein arranges to visit the local charnal house, from where he takes away the body of a man who has been hanged ~ the perfect human specimen for him to base his work on, being recently deceased, and with a body uncorrupted by illness or other harm, excluding damage to the neck!

A friend and fellow scientist is horrified to know what Baron Frankenstein is planning. Indeed, a great deal of the film is taken up with their discussions on the moral right of undertaking such experiments which, even with the best intentions, lead only to a ghastly outcome, both for the maker ~ and the made.

The creature made during this film (as played by Christopher Lee) is not as hideous as in  later cinema adaptations. It works for me, and is perhaps a closer image of the monster Mary Shelley had in mind. Perhaps the film’s major success is in the way it shows the piteous complexity within the ‘monster’s’ stiff and lurching body, while underneath its deep confusion and raging physicality we see the glimpse of human torment. Meanwhile, the real monster, the callous Baron Frankenstein, is driven to insanity by blind obsession and ambition; ending up the heretic whose aims of playing God lead to his own descent to hell.

 

The curse of Frankenstein

Hammer Horror. 1957. Directed by Terence Fisher

Starring Peter Cushing, Robert Urquhart, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee

WHEN EVENTS DON’T GO AS PLANNED…

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A writer’s life is varied when it comes to public appearances. Ask any author on a publicity tour and you’ll hear how on one evening they’ll experience venues full of fans, the next more intimate affairs where members of the audience can be counted on the fingers of a hand.

I often think of one event taking place about five years ago, when I’d been asked to go and speak in a public city library. The date had been scheduled months ahead and, around a week before, I sent an email to my contact to check that all was still on plan.

It was, and off I ventured on a chilly winter’s afternoon, spending many hours on trains to reach my destination. With more than half an hour to spare, I entered the doors of the library and approached the man on the central desk to whom I introduced myself, asking to meet the woman who’d booked me for the evening, only for him to answer: “Oh! She’s away on holiday. Who did you say you were again?”

A panicked glance around the library walls and I found a smallish leaflet. But, there in black and white it was. My name. That very evening’s date ~ at which point the male librarian then agreed to take me in the lift to the staff room on the floor above. There, I’d hoped to check the laptop which I’d been assured before would be provided for the slides I’d made to illustrate my talk that night; until more bad news was announced – “I don’t know about any laptop. The one we’ve got is on the blink.”

The door to the staff room opened up, just as I was digesting this. Blank faces stared back out as I then introduced myself again, and – again – enquired about the laptop on which to show my Powerpoint display. 

“We’ll have to see if we can find it.” Someone said, while someone else then pointed to the corner of the room, towards the other author who, I was now instructed, had also been booked to talk that night. “Perhaps you’ll find some common ground. Make the event a shared one…” 

Perhaps we could, and so I sat and asked my fellow author, “What’s your book about then? Mine’s a Victorian gothic novel.” Yet another cold blank stare was met, and then the answer I received in shock – “I’m here to talk about the shortage of human organ donations in the Nigerian population settled in North London.”

A silence fell between us. How on earth could we ever make this work? And, would I ever see the laptop on which to try and load my slides, what with it now less than five minutes before the evening’s event was due to start … and where would it be taking place? The library was very large.

“In the children’s section…” came another’s librarian’s answer. “We’ve set the chairs up, and the screen, but has anybody told you … the computer here is on the blink?”

Down in the lift we went, a sinking feeling also in my heart to discover the children’s library was open plan; not only that, but still wide open to the public. More disheartening was the audience. Six people waiting patiently. Six people who it then transpired had come along to hear me speak – which was when the other author then took a huff and disappeared off home. 

Feeling embarrassed and rather awkward, at least I could get on with things. If only the laptop would keep running. If only I didn’t have to talk above the cries and laughter of the children running round the room, or the hooting horns and ding ding dings of the computer games they played. I wished the floor open up and swallow me entirely when I spoke of Victorian child prostitutes, and brothels, and tertiary syphilis ~ with many lurid images displayed upon the screen behind.

Thank heavens when the laptop finally gave up the ghost for good, when two librarians who’d placed themselves on chairs at the back of the audience continued nattering amongst themselves as I did my best to fix it, until I asked despairingly, “Shall we just give up and find a pub?”

This is nearly the end of my story – but a story with a happy end – because three of the people who came along to have a drink with me that night remain the firmest friends today. One is a well-travelled businesswoman. One is a talented artist. One is a professional composer and singer who, along with another gifted friend, has performed her glorious music at the launches of other books of mine. 

I do often wonder, if that library talk had gone as planned, would these connections ever have been made? Perhaps not. But, they were, and because of that I cherish that night’s memory ~ as well as chuckling about it. 

And finally, here is the stunning music Kirsten Morrison composed and sang at the launch party for my novel: The Last Days of Leda Grey …

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