Although not technically a mummy story (there’s no real reanimated mummy in it, but we’ll get to that) Bram Stoker’s tale of ancient Egyptian evil and mysticism has had a big effect on the genre resulting in at least three movies based on its plot and characters. Dracula author Bram Stoker had always been intrigued by Egypt’s ancient brand of spiritualism. At a young age Stoker was a visitor to the house of fellow Irishman Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde). Wilde was an amateur archaeologist whose house (like the Trelawny house in the novel) was filled with Egyptian antiquities and the stories of his expeditions and digs in that far off land clearly influenced the young writer. In a time when fascination with Egypt’s mysteries was spawning various secret societies and the occult dabblings of Alistair Crowley, Stoker was not alone in his pursuit for mystic knowledge and his descriptions of artefacts and spiritual ideas are layered with authenticity.
Malcolm Ross – a young barrister – is the story’s protagonist who finds himself neck-deep in a mystery plot at the Trelawny house in Notting Hill. Abel Trelawny is an Egyptologist who has been found unconscious and wounded on the floor of his bedroom study. Among Abel’s Egyptian collection is a mummified cat, a human mummy (missing a hand) and a perfectly preserved severed hand with seven fingers. Adorning one finger is carven ruby ring set with seven points resembling the plough constellation. Ross is in love with Trelawny’s daughter Margaret, who reveals a mysterious letter penned by her father stating that his body should not be moved from his room and must be watched until he wakes up. Eugine Corbeck, another Egyptologist, who worked with Abel turns up at the house and tells Ross of his and Abel’s trip to Egypt years previously and their discovery of the tomb of Queen Tera, an ancient sorceress. The moment they cracked open Tera’s sarcophagus, Abel’s wife back in England died giving birth to Margaret; a coincidence vital to the plot. When Abel awakens from his state he begins to put in motion his plans for a ‘great experiment’ which will give him vast insight into the spiritual plains of the ancient Egyptians by returning the spirit of Queen Tera (that has been residing in the mummified cat) to its proper corporeal vessel. But the spirit of Queen Tera is already trying to enter Margaret’s body causing her to display alarming shifts in personality.
As well as showcasing the Victorian fear of the rise of the ‘New Woman’ in Margaret’s gradual transformation from a timid, non-threatening love interest to a strong, sexually powerful and independent woman, Tera’s threat to civilisation and her plans to rule the modern world make the novel an example of Imperial Gothic, a subgenre marked by the fear that the civilised world had reached its peak and the only way left was down, back to barbarism. This idea was mirrored by the French notion of Fin de siècle’ (end of the century) and the idea that all will eventually degenerate to decadence.