An ancient Egyptian mummy. An ominous and deadly curse. A growing collection of fatalities in the mummy’s presence.
It is a familiar, and intriguing, plot for horror novels. But one of the earliest of such novels has gone unread for quite some time: Riccardo Stephens’ The Mummy (1912). Now my favorite publisher, Valancourt Books, has released the first new edition in nearly 100 years.
Straddling the line between mystery and horror, Stephens presents an intriguing tale of death and obsession that is reminiscent of the exploits of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
The novel begins as Dr. Armiston, medical practitioner and aging bachelor, has his breakfast interrupted by an urgent request. He is called in to consult on the cause of death of a man named Scrymgeour, who it becomes evident has died in an accidental fall in his home. The only peculiarity in the case seems utterly unrelated: Scrymgeour has the mummy case of an Egyptian priestess in his home.
The case is closed as an accidental death, however, and for Armiston this seems the end of the story: until he his called in to consult on another fatality, and finds that the same mummy case is present in the second victim’s home. This second death is ruled death by natural causes, but is it? How did the same mummy case end up in two homes, and what is its connection to the deaths, if any?
Armiston soon finds himself called in to act as a consultant for a peculiar group of high society individuals, known as the Plain Speakers. The group’s motto is that all present at meetings are free to speak their mind on any subject, on any person, without fear of repercussions and under strict confidentiality. This group has been playing a macabre game with the priestess’ mummy, one that seems to have invoked an ancient curse inscribed on the mummy case. As more corpses pile up in connection with the game, Armiston vows to get to the bottom of the mystery. However, it may come at the cost of his own life.
As I have noted, The Mummy is an interesting novel that walks on the blurry line between mystery and horror novels. The closest comparison I can give to its overall feel and tone is Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902); I would not be surprised if Stephens was not partially inspired by this work. I also found the pacing and the mixing of horror and mystery to be quite reminiscent of one of my favorite authors, and Stephens’ Edwardian contemporary, Richard Marsh, of whom I’ve written quite a lot on this blog. Marsh regularly wrote both horror novels and mystery novels, leaving the reader of any particular book wondering — in a good way, I might add — what sort of story they were going to get.
The publication of The Mummy was well-timed to capitalize on what would be new-found enthusiasm among the general public for all things ancient Egypt. On December 6, 1912 — late in the same year the novel was released — German archaeologists discovered the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, which has become one of the most famous and copied pieces of ancient Egyptian artwork in the western world. A new edition of Stephens’ novel was printed in 1923 to capitalize on an even more spectacular find: the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. Considering that tomb was hyped by the media to be protected by a curse, The Mummy was well-positioned for a spike in popularity.
The novel itself is a somewhat slow-paced and leisurely read; one shouldn’t expect to find dramatic events and spectacular twists and turns on every page. Much of the book focuses on the curious habits and culture of London’s upper-class, particularly the members of the Plain Speakers’ group. This is not a criticism, as I found the conversations and intrigues of Edwardian society to be just as interesting as the mystery as presented. The solution to the mystery itself is revealed, or at least strongly alluded to, some time before the conclusion of the novel. This is an interesting choice for Stephens to make, as it allows the reader to follow along and understand the very specific steps he takes in order to throw back the curtain so to speak.
Like most Valancourt releases, this edition of The Mummy comes with an excellent new introduction, this one by scholar Mark Valentine; he discussed what little information we currently know about author Riccardo Stephens. This volume also has lovely cover art by M.S. Corley, as one can see at the beginning of this post.
For those who like mystery novels with a horror twist, or simply reading clever books set in Edwardian times, I can recommend The Mummy wholeheartedly.