Ancient Egypt has given us many things, not least of which the idea of mummies resurrected to fulfil some terrible curse or to pursue the sinister ambitions of those who raised them. Nevermind that such a concept was far from the mythology of the Ancient Egyptians themselves, the mummy is as iconic a figure of horror as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. But unlike those stars of cinematic terror, the mummy lacks a single literary root. There is no novel called ‘The Mummy’ that was the single inspiration for the slew of movies featuring bandaged terrors resurrected from their tombs. But then, there is this novel from the pen of Jane C. Loudon (born Jane Webb) which is the first real story to feature a reanimated mummy, albeit in a futuristic setting with a plot dominated by ideological philosophizing and political intrigue than horror.
English born author Jane Webb published her story in 1827 to financially support herself after her father died penniless. It’s a fantastically bizarre story of the future, showing the world as it may appear in 2126, a world that has made great leaps in technology but is morally bankrupt. Women wear trousers and headdresses made of flames. Airships prowl the skies, letters are sent via cannonball and steam-powered automatons serve as surgeons and lawyers. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Steampunk. Egypt was all the rage at the time of writing thanks to Napoleon’s looting of the country during his invasion and the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. Mummies were being unwrapped before audiences in Piccadilly. And another novel by a female author had been published in 1818 which had thrilled and disgusted the public with the idea of reanimating the dead.
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is an obvious influence on Webb’s The Mummy!. Much like Victor Frankenstein, the main character, Edric, becomes obsessed with the God-like power he would receive should he be able to reanimate the dead. Instead of sewing together corpses, Edric is more interested in returning the soul to its mortal vessel and sets out for Egypt with his professor, Dr. Entwerfen, with the aim of reviving Cheops (Khufu) in his Great Pyramid at Giza with a portable galvanic battery. Immediately regretting his actions once the mummy is up on his feet, Edric and his companions soon find their airship stolen by the renegade pharaoh who promptly sails to London and lands on Queen Claudia, killing her. Spread over three volumes published anonymously, the story goes on to include political intrigue, murderous rivalry and conspiracy, with Cheops playing his role in all, dispensing political and moral advice along the way.