Thursday 31 October 2013

Dead and Buried or Alive and Kicking | David Bryher on the Mummy

We do love our undead, don’t we? If it’s not seductive vampires, it’s ravenous zombies gathered in their hordes of various speeds. While the former have cornered the sparkly ‘paranormal romance’ market, the latter are a grumbling, mumbling presence in tons of media from books to films to computer games as wildly varied as Minecraft, Skyrim and Dead Rising (and and and).

There was a time — just ask Universal — when we liked our undead a lot more simple: Dracula was out for our blood and the zombies were out for our brains. It was a simpler time, before folk started to throw around pesky metaphors, before we tried to empathise with the undead, before we got things like True Blood or BBC3’s In The Flesh. And all this stuff is well and good — but whence shamble the mummies? 

We demand more of our monsters nowadays. Vampires have come to represent tortured love, while zombie stories talk of war and social exclusion and a rapacious global society. These, of course, are problems for the living — but mummies... mummies are made of nothing but death.

Some years ago, I stayed in Luxor in Egypt, in a hotel overlooking the Nile. Every night, I would watch the sun set on the other side of the river, behind the low, lumpy mountains surrounding the Valley of the Kings. After it sank below the horizon, said the myths, the sun travelled into the land of the dead — and that was why the tombs of the Egyptian kings were dug into the heels of those bone-white mountains. It wasn’t much of a stretch to see the imaginative leaps required to build this belief: if you set out from the temple-cluttered ancient capital of Thebes, following the red sun as it slides out of sight, you’d find nothing but dry, chalky ground — an absence of life so close to the green marshes surrounding the Nile. When the sun went, it took life with it — so where better to dig to find the gates to the afterlife?

This valley was a gateway into the beyond: and while that beyond may have included an eternal life of gold and bounty and cocaine and hookers, Death was still its gatekeeper, and its gate was one-way. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids, those richly painted sarcophagi on display at museums around the world — all that colour, pomp and splendour, all brought to life by death.

So, while vampires and zombies have come to cast their light on our lives, the mummy still casts a long, sunset shadow over our existence, reminding us of the naked truth that Everything Dies. And even though we might be remembered, it’s a gamble: we can only ever be remembered if we’re dead and gone and there’s a chance we’ll be forgotten too. 

There are all sorts of ways of looking at the Egyptian fascination with their dear departed and the method of their departure. Few cultures have built such obvious or long-lasting tributes to their dead and it’s easy, if you’re looking for a hook to hang a story on, to read this behaviour as uncomfortably clingy. And it wasn’t just the Egyptians that were into embalming and clinginess...

In 13th Century Scotland [Comes highly recommended! — Ed.], Lady Dervourguilla of Galloway founded an abbey, known as New Abbey, near Dumfries. In 1269, her beloved husband, John Balliol (of the Oxford college fame), died and, refusing to be parted from her love, Dervorguilla had his heart embalmed and placed in a casket of ivory and silver. She carried this casket around with her for the rest of her life until, finally, she was laid to rest in the grounds of New Abbey, next to the slightly hollowed-out body of her husband. In honour of this, er, ‘touching’ tale, the abbey was renamed ‘Sweetheart Abbey'. 

(I think the monks were taking the piss.)

Even though there’s only a tiny shred of mumminess in this story, I still think it shows us just how much sway death, and the belief that people should be remembered in such stark and bold ways, holds over us. I used the tale of Dervorguilla as the basis for my story in The Book of the Dead, using it to look at how we hang on to things we should have shucked off and forgotten long ago.

So maybe that’s what mummies teach us about our lives: not everything is worth remembering; not everything about life is so precious that we should worry about leaving it in the dusty desert, buried with the setting sun. The curse of the pharaohs may actually be there to protect us. And sometimes, maybe it really is better for the dead to stay dead.


David Bryher’s new short story, 'The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey,' appears in The Book of the Dead. His other recent work includes storylining and additional writing on The Walk (the new game from the makers of I), a preview of a 1964 Doctor Who story (you read that right), and the sci-fi audio drama A Lift in Time for Big Finish Productions.

For more about the author, follow @davidbryher on Twitter and check out his blog.

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