Late at night, barrister Malcolm Ross is awakened from a pleasant dream by a pounding on his door. A policeman is waiting for him there, with an urgent summons from Margaret Trelawny, a young woman whom Ross had recently met and become enamored with. Margaret’s father Abel, a noted collector of ancient Egyptian antiquities, has succumbed to a mysterious illness, rendering him comatose. Worse, at the same time he has suffered an even more mysterious life-threatening injury. In desperation, Margaret has summoned Ross, the only man she feels she can trust, to help her protect her father from an unknown threat.
So begins the novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, written in 1903 by the master of horror fiction, Bram Stoker.
Stoker is, of course, best known for his influential 1897 novel Dracula, which really sparked the entire modern vampire craze (though there were precursors). He wrote a number of other supernatural thrillers, The Lair of the White Worm being perhaps the next best known. (And there’s this one that I recently acquired and am dying to read.)
The Jewel of Seven Stars is relatively unknown, which is surprising — it is one of the earlier stories about the reanimation of an ancient Egyptian mummy, and it is quite a thrilling tale! It also uses state-of-the-art science of the time to bolster the story — with rather amusing results.
When Malcolm Ross arrives at the Trelawny house, he finds a scene in near chaos. Abel has been found in his room of Egyptian antiquities, lying on the floor near his safe with his wrist horribly mauled by some animal. A Doctor Winchester has already been called to tend to the patient, and Ross quickly calls a sharp police officer, Sergeant Daw, to assist in the investigation. Abel Trelawny is in a cataleptic state unfamiliar to medical science, but seems to have anticipated trouble: he has left explicit written instructions that he is not to be moved from his Egyptian room, and furthermore he is to be guarded at all times by no less than one man and one woman.
The latter directive turns out to be prophetic: the following night, even with people in the room, Abel is attacked again by an unseen force. Ross and the others realize they are guarding against a deadly and likely supernatural threat — and have no real defense against it. More troubling, Margaret Trelawny seems to gradually be falling under the influence of this same threat, as her personality shifts subtly but unmistakably.
The arrival of Eugene Corbeck, a colleague of Abel’s freshly returned from Egypt, sheds some light on the situation and raises the stakes considerably. With Corbeck’s help, Trelawny has spent years of his life seeking out the tomb of the ancient Egyptian queen and sorceress Tera, and nearly all of Tera’s funerary possessions are in Abel’s room — including the queen’s mummy. Corbeck has brought the final pieces with him, and with everything together the group plans a dangerous experiment that may prove the existence of the supernatural — or lead to their destruction.
I found The Jewel of Seven Stars a little slow-going at the beginning, which is rather surprising considering the dramatic circumstances of the introduction! However, when Corbeck arrives and explains the creepy history of of Queen Tera and the discovery of her tomb, the novel becomes very difficult to put down. Stoker does a magnificent job of making Queen Tera a powerful presence and personality in the novel, even though most information about her comes from legends and stories from other characters.
When Stoker wrote his novel in 1903, science was undergoing great change thanks to dramatic discoveries of things such as radioactivity. The element radium was isolated by Marie Curie in 1902, and it seemed like a wonder substance, able to generate limitless amounts of energy. Radium made a tremendous impression not only on the scientific community, but on the general public. As spiritualism was still much in vogue in that era, it was not difficult for writers of the macabre to speculate on a connection between this miraculous new energy source and the supernatural. As one of the characters espouses late in the novel,
“There is another matter, too, on which recent discoveries in science throw a light. It is only a glimmer at present; a glimmer sufficient to illuminate probabilities, rather than actualities, or even possibilities. The discoveries of the Curies and Laborde, of Sir William Crookes and Becquerel, may have far-reaching results on Egyptian investigation. This new metal, radium — or rather this old metal of which our knowledge is new — may have been known to the ancients. Indeed it may have been used thousands of years ago in greater degree than seems possible today.”
This line of reasoning leads to one of the most hilarious pseudo-scientific speculations I’ve ever read! After deciding that the ancient Egyptians may have found a source of radium in granite rock, the narrator continues,
“If, then, radium is divisible into such minute particles as the scientists tell us, it too must have been freed in time from its granite prison and left to work in the air. One might almost hazard a suggestion that the taking the scarab as the symbol of life may not have been without an empiric basis. Might it not be possible that Coprophagi have power or instinct to seize upon the minute particles of heat-giving, light-giving — perhaps life-giving — radium, and enclosing them with their ova in those globes of matter which they roll so assiduously, and from which they take their early name, Pilulariae.”
What is a Coprophagia? It is “the consumption of feces” — the Egyptian scarab is a dung beetle, that rolls up balls of dung and takes them back to its nest!
So Bram Stoker is suggesting that dung beetles roll up radium in their dung balls — yes, he is suggesting that they roll radioactive balls of poop!
Chuckles aside, Stoker’s novel is serious business, and in fact it builds to a shocking finale that was too horrifying for the Edwardian audiences of the time. When Stoker attempted to reprint the novel in 1912, the publisher told him he would have to change the ending. This more pleasant end was the only one available for years, though newer editions of the book have returned to the original 1903 text. Both versions can be read freely at Bram Stoker Online, for those who like to compare.
What is perhaps most surprising about The Jewel of Seven Stars is that it was evidently not the inspiration for the endless stream of mummy movies and fiction writings that followed! The classic Boris Karloff film The Mummy (1932) was inspired by the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb, and the alleged curse that it contained. What is truly remarkable is that Stoker’s novel contains pretty much all of the elements of future mummy stories — reanimated mummy, a terrible curse, reincarnation, a series of gruesome, mysterious deaths, Egyptian sorcery, and even fearful natives — but it was not the main inspiration for the genre.
Those interested in reading a great horror story, especially fans of mummy tales, will find The Jewel of Seven Stars a delight.