Book Review: The Mummy's Curse

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Peter Bebergal reviews Roger Luckhurst's The Mummy's Curse in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

"IN THE EARLY part of the nineteenth century, Egypt occupied a liminal place in the British imagination. It represented the height of empire, a country that knew how to create culture as well as how to rule. A civilization like Egypt contained everything that was glorious and backwards about the non-English speaking world; its treasures stupendous, its beliefs both corrupt and naive. England felt a strong attachment to Egypt: when it was lost to the French in the late eighteenth century, it was quickly retaken by British forces in 1802, only to be lost again when Egypt sought independence and forced England out. England continued to celebrate Egypt as a repository of great art and architecture — treasures that, by subterfuge and smuggling, were sometimes spirited away to London.

Unlike other plundered cultures, the riches of Egypt contained something none other did: the bodies of kings and princes, queens and princesses, their children, and even their pets, preserved for millennia with the belief that they would ride the god Ra’s boat into the afterlife. The mummy was first seen as a wonder, then a pop-medical curiosity, and by the late nineteenth century the locus of any number of curse rumors, occult speculations, and supernatural fiction plots. Roger Luckhurst’s new book The Mummy’s Curse attempts a kind of cultural and literary archeology of this phenomenon of how the mummy went from curiosity to dread in less than a century. In the course of his investigation, Luckhurst attempts to show that the story of the mummy’s curse is born of a fusion of empire building, xenophobia, and belief in the inheritance of sin. Luckhurst also makes the significant observation that England’s fascination with the mummy and its supposed otherworldly power is also an important example of the persistence of the occult imagination, even in a scientific age."
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