Review: The Book of the Dead

Shurin, Jared, ed. The Book of the Dead. Jurassic London (2013). Softcover: 362 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0957646254.

I’m a sucker for a good mummy story. Unfortunately, mummy stories – whether good, bad, or indifferent – are pretty thin on the ground. While the mummy has captured the public imagination in Europe and America since the turn of the century, it has mostly found its manifestation in film rather than print and, like the werewolf, never really had any agreed-upon ur-text (as Dracula was for vampires and Frankenstein was for, well, Frankensteins). In spite of classic tales by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, the majority of fictional mummy lore over the years has come from the movies. Starting with the Universal mummy films of the 30s and 40s – which, like Dracula and Frankenstein, were later revived and given Hammer’s unique touch – the most recent resurgence of the popular cinematic mummy came with the success of the Brendan Frasier-starring blockbuster remake in 1999, which spawned a host of sequels and spin-offs.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that – in spite of the prognostications of Penny Arcade – mummies never really caught on in modern popular culture in quite the same way that vampires, werewolves and zombies have, so a new collection of all-original mummy stories is always a welcome sight, especially one that features stories from some fantastic contemporary writers, including Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer, who both turn in predictably fabulous tales.

I suppose, perhaps given the mummy’s storied cinematic history, I was expecting something a little different than what I got when I cracked open The Book of the Dead, though really, the introduction from an Egyptologist and member of the Egypt Exploration Society should have set me straight before I even read the first story. What you won’t find in The Book of the Dead are the sort of mummy stories that we’re accustomed to getting from films or even the classic tales I mentioned above, though many of the stories contained in these pages (especially Jesse Bullington’s entry “Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb”) acknowledge and play with the cinematic legacy of these most venerable of revenants in interesting ways. In fact, there are hardly any stories in The Book of the Dead that could even be considered horror stories.

Instead, what you’ll find are stories from the mummy’s point of view, stories that show a respect and admiration for the beliefs and spirituality that shaped the funerary practices of ancient Egypt, stories that, almost without fail, are remarkably tender, poignant, even touching. In one of those moments of odd synchronicity that seem to always happen when putting together a themed anthology, you’ll also find a lot of mummified cats, both as central figures of some stories and decorative MacGuffins of others. There’s even a tale that calls to mind the narrative conceit of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, with its animal narrators. Some of the stories play a bit with the notion of what a mummy is, and we get mummies in a variety of shapes and sizes. Not all of them come from Egypt, but, as you might imagine from a book with an introduction by an Egyptologist, a great many of them do.

At the end of the day, The Book of the Dead is a delightful foray into the history and mythology of the mummy, one that’s very different from any other mummy collection that’s come before – at least, any one that I’ve ever gotten my hands on. If you’re a fan of mummy stories – or of Egyptian mythology and culture – and are looking for some different approaches to the mummy tale, then The Book of the Dead is a perfect place to begin your excavations.