This little piece started out being mummy fluff, and turned into a political rant, so you’ll have to forgive me. I didn’t realize, until I started writing it, that I actually did have some pretty precise feelings about mummy narratives, and indeed about the notion of the walking dead, which is, of course, the category mummy stories usually fall into. I thought, tra-la, mummy fun and games, and then, well, you’ll see. That is, of course, the joy of writing fiction – it can be both written and read on a variety of levels. Here, mummy stories are both fun & games, AND speak to some of our most ancient cultural maladies.
Mummies and mummy-bits have been eaten as medicine up to and throughout the Elizabethan era, ground up and made into ink until 1963 (!), their bandages scavenged (possibly) to make into paper in the 1850’s, stolen from pyramids for centuries, sold as pulverized spell-ingredients in a witchcraft-supply store in NYC as late as the 1970’s — or so the research for my story, 'Bit-U-Men,' revealed... and all the while, they’ve managed to retain their romance.
That’s not nothing, when what we’re talking about is a category of zombie trope. Zombies are basically unromantic to the maximum, what with their rotting and their flesh cravings. Mummies in fiction are also generally walking dead, but they manage to be... cool.
Now for a little class analysis. Got to do it. It’s why we’re still obsessed.
Mummies are our genre-fictional royal families, and we have the same complicated feelings about them that we have about the living royals, whether they be Prince William and Kate, or the Kennedy clan: obsession, revulsion, intrigue, envy, curiosity, wrath...
In fiction, after all, mummies tend to be dead Kings and Queens, wrapped in their finest, with their legions of servants, and their treasures. The middle-class mummy is not a trope we’re used to seeing, nor is the mummy at the bottom of the social order. (Animal mummies are slight exceptions, but animal mummies also exist in a largely royal context. Those sacred cats are not your typical street feline mousers.) Mummies come with curses, but also with power, because hello: the mummies we’re talking about when we’re telling stories tend to be mummies made of the people who were in charge. Even dead, they tend to come with a lot of certainty. They ask for, and take what they want, and victims of fictional mummy curses are seduced by the pretty, the shiny, the possible rewards that come from getting involved in bad business.
In reality, of course, powerless mummies would be the norm. There are a hell of a lot more poor people in any culture than there are Kings. In even more stark reality, hello, we’re talking about the dead, who are inherently pretty damn powerless. Any power we culturally invest them with is our own nervousness about dying. We do not want to die and lose our influence. We would, thus, much, MUCH rather be mummies than zombies, because mummies rule beyond the grave, whereas poor zombies get yanked up from their deadness, all messy and clueless, and their only reward is hard labor and hunger for flesh. Fiction’s mummies, on the other hand, get buried with feasts. When they walk through our narratives, they tend to be equipped with the craft and capacity that come of satiation rather than starvation’s bewilderment and emaciated collapse.
Fictional mummies are often villainously power-hungry — even if they’re powerful, dying has crimped their style — and thus, in these narratives, the satisfaction of our heroes destroying a mummy is the same satisfaction as that of overthrowing a king. Mummy stories can frequently be seen as stories about the overthrow of the ruling class, even if the ruling class in these cases is way dead. They’re stories about killing kings, and re-killing kings, about taking power from those who shouldn’t have it any more.
The thought that the dead might retain their agency is, I think, both tempting — we’re all, after all, going to die — and terrifying. What if the dead want things we don’t want to give them? What if the dead want things they shouldn’t want?
Enter zombies, genre-fiction’s poverty-equivalent. Zombies come at you with all the tropes of right wing poverty rhetoric: the poor are stupid, greedy (that would be the terminology, rather than hungry), and without understanding of the Real Things. It’s both fascinating and unsurprising that there’s been a recent surge of zombie narrative popularity. Global financial collapse always leads societies to collective fear of both poverty and of the poor — even if the poor are us. These stories are manufactured as a way, usually, to sell the myth of the evil of the poor to the poor themselves. Zombie stories are essentially stories of the starving and desperate trying to regain stability.
In real-world terms: there’s long been an attempt to sell the mythos that starving people are not actually human, and that starvation is the fault of the starved rather than of the fed. In zombie stories, a narrative in which the poor overthrow the not-as-poor, the overthrowing poor are portrayed as being unable to run any kind of society. Zombie society, after all, is cannibal, flesh collapse, and lack of reason.
So, yes, these are bummer tropes. I bring them up for a reason though — I would, it turns out, like to see more mummy overthrows, rather than more post-apocalypse zombie battles. I would like to see a world in which bad power is collectively fought against, rather than a world in which we try to destroy the weak, the hungry, and the poor.
The recent space of incredibly upsetting and wildly inaccurate headlines about Roma in Europe — and the hideous New York Times headline last week: “Are the Roma primitive, or just poor?” — have had me thinking a lot about the things writers, as influencers of larger culture, are putting out into the world in story form. When I was a kid, my grandmother had a racist terror of the people she referred to as “the Gypsies: they’ll steal your children.” To her mind, that wasn’t a wrong thing to say. It was, in her opinion, truth. In the world media at present, the rhetoric seems to be very similar. (The New York Times, for god’s sake!! How does that headline get a pass? How are heads not rolling?) My grandmother’s terror of the Roma people came into being during the Great Depression. She came from a family stricken, as very many were, by complete poverty, and they crossed from Nebraska farmland to Idaho in a Model T. Who caused America’s poverty in that moment? Certainly not the Roma. What got sold to the poor — to protect the ruling class from uprisings?
Dear Poor People,
There are people poorer than you, and they (not we) are the villains. They will steal your children, your money, your security. Blame them. Hate them.
So, what is being sold to the masses right now? Exactly the same toxic ingredients: there are people poorer than you, and they will steal your children, your money, your security. Don’t fight the powerful, fight the weak.
This, folks, is a real-world example of a zombie narrative being sold as truth. It sucks. It’s a prime example of the poor being politically and purposefully imbued with the traits of classic monsters, in order to distract attention from actual criminals.
So, let’s talk about why mummy narratives are relevant now, in that context? If, as I’m saying, the classic mummy trope is Royal Mummy, then the mummies really are the ones we should be fighting. I’m talking royal not necessarily in terms of kings and queens, but in terms of Power.
Structurally, then, mummy stories are a better model. I’m not talking that of total violent uprising, though sometimes that’s very necessary, and we’ve definitely seen that in many complicated iterations in the last few years. I’m talking, when I talk about The Mummy Narrative, about intelligent heroes and heroines (and that’s usually what you get, classically — the people fighting the mummies tend to be clever, often scholars, archeologists, academics) fighting abuses of power.
In a fun way? Can I get back to the fun of Mummy Stories? Maybe I can’t from here. This kind of fiction can be totally fun to write and read, but I think its longevity comes from deeper things. Like everything worth reading, maybe, mummy stories hinge on societal rules and rebellion against the wrong-headed ones.
That’s a good model for moving forward, and a very good reason mummy stories are still relevant, even now.
(And, FYI, my story in The Book of the Dead? Well... I managed to write something which has exactly nothing to do with all this. The mummy I wrote is a middle-class mummy, or at least, it’s a mummy that’s got nothing but itself, and the story isn’t of villainy but of love... and it’s full of sex and candy. What can I tell you? There are, apparently, lots of kinds of mummy stories — and in the book, I’m sure there definitely are. This essay was just me considering one kind — the classic kind.)
Maria Dahvana Headley is the Nebula-nominated author of the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings as well as the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Subterranean, Glitter and Mayhem, The Lowest Heaven and more, as well as the 2013 editions of The Year's Best Fantasy & Science Fiction and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. Most recently, with Neil Gaiman, she co-edited the young adult monster anthology Unnatural Creatures.