Renowned spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in a variety of genres, not least of which were his tales of the supernatural. As well as taking part in seances and claiming to be able to communicate with the dead, he lent support to various reported phenomena (later revealed as frauds) such as the Cottingley Fairies. Naturally the mysteries of Egypt appealed to him. He strongly believed in ‘elementals’ created by the priests of ancient Egypt to protect the tombs of the pharaohs in the form of curses. He attributed the death of his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who had been studying a female mummy in the British museum, to these elementals. When asked by a reporter in 1923, he also put the death of Lord Carnarvon (discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb) down to his tempting fate, thus fuelling the sensational rumours of ‘King Tut’s Curse’ further. But it was his two short stories dealing with ancient Egyptian magic and mummies that had the biggest effect on popular culture.
Published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1890, The Ring of Thoth tells of an Egyptologist named John Vansittart Smith who, on a visit to the Louvre museum, comes across a haggard-looking caretaker who catches his imagination. Convinced that the fellow is an Egyptian of the oldest order, Smith is unable to concentrate on his studies and eventually drifts off to sleep only to awaken to find that he has been locked in the museum for the night. Wandering the lonely and shadow-haunted rooms of the Louvre, Smith comes across the strange caretaker removing a mummy from its case and unwrapping it to reveal a beautiful woman. Startled by the Englishman’s approach, the attendant eventually agrees to tell his story; a tale of love, rivalry and a quest to find the Ring of Thoth which is the only thing that can break the spell of immortality and reunite him with his loved one.
Lot No. 249 is perhaps the most influential of Doyle’s mummy tales in that it was the first story ever to feature a reanimated mummy as a figure of horror. Jane Webb wrote the first mummy story in her science fiction tale of the future The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in 1827 and Edgar Allen Poe had reanimated a mummy in his satire Some Words with a Mummy (1845) but it was Conan Doyle who can truly be said to be the root of the modern ‘mummy monster’ popularised by the movies. Published in 1892, Lot No. 249 regards medical student Abercrombie Smith who, after moving into his rooms in a crumbling tower at Oxford, begins to have suspicions about his neighbor on the floor below. Edward Bellingham is an Egyptologist who has an array of weird artefacts in his room, weirdest of all is a mummy in a glass case. Smith begins to think that Bellingham is not alone in his rooms at night as the footsteps of a second individual are often heard. Then attempts are made on the lives of Bellingham’s rivals by an unknown assailant…
Whereas The Ring of Thoth undoubtedly influenced Universal’s The Mummy (1932) Lot No. 249 was a definite inspiration for most mummy movies that followed it, notably Universal’s second mummy feature The Mummy’s Hand (1940) which began the cinematic tradition of big, shambling mummies lurching after their victims under the command of wicked individuals. The idea of burning special leaves to control the mummy (a plot device used in most of Universal’s mummy movies) may also have come from Lot No. 249 as strange leaves are found in Bellingham’s room at the end of the story.