Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Mummy!

Our book today is The Mummy by Anne Rice, and it raises that old familiar question: what exactly is Anne Rice, as a literary phenomenon? She's been writing for decades, steadily turning out best-selling books starring various supernatural creatures (vampires, witches, demons, Messiahs), she's got a rabidly loyal fan following, and she's spawned not only countless imitators and a couple of Hollywood movies but another writer, her son Christopher.

The entire time, she's been considered the female equivalent of Stephen King - a guilty pleasure of negligible literary quality. In both authors, there's a very visible sense of writing too much, too fast - the sense that if they paused and really concentrated, the fewer books they produce would be much better books.

So despite her popularity, it's rare to find an Anne Rice novel that's actually any good. Her Mayfair witches novels are boggy and dull; her later vampire novels are breathlessly vapid (they read like the jottings in a high school yearbook); her ongoing Jesus novels are excruciating. It's often hard to remember, reading her today, that Interview with the Vampire is actually quite good, that The Vampire Lestat is often very exciting reading, and that Queen of the Damned is one of the best-plotted horror novels of its decade.

My favorite of this small shelf of good books is her 1989 novel The Mummy. It opens in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century, where amateur British archaeologist Lawrence Stratford has spent years excavating tombs and ruins rather than run his family's shipping business, which he leaves to his brother Randolph. Lawrence has made an astounding discovery: a mummy whose inscriptions claim to be Ramses the Great, even though the body of that famous pharaoh is supposed to be in the Cairo Museum. And even more mysterious: this Ramses seems to have lived on hundreds of years, to have survived the Middle Kingdom and eventually come to love Cleopatra. Lawrence is so ecstatic translating the notebooks found with the mummy that he's only annoyed by the arrival of his shifty, evil nephew Henry, who wants him to liquidate some family stock to cover Henry's gambling debts.

In one of the book's first scenes, Henry confronts Lawrence in the hot, cramped burial chamber where the mummy of Ramses rests propped against a wall, and while Lawrence is distracted, Henry slips poison in his coffee. Lawrence dies almost instantly, and Henry can't shake the feeling that the mummy was watching everything.

Lawrence's grief-stricken daughter Julie has the entire contents of the dig shipped to her house in London, where it's scheduled to go on private display before it's given to the British Museum. And shortly after this event at her home, Julie finds herself sitting in sunny exhibit room with Henry, who's bitter over the fact that Stratford Shipping was left to Julie. While she's distracted, Henry actually tries the same trick twice: he slips poison into her coffee and urbanely urges her to drink up. And she's about to - with the reader yelling at her not to - when the mummy in its case across the room starts to move! It shuffles over and grabs Henry weakly, spilling the poisoned coffee. Henry flees, and gradually Julie realizes that the steadily-strengthening being struggling free of his dusty bandages is indeed Ramses.

He's immortal, and he's got a knack for languages, and very quickly they're conversing - and falling in love. The refreshing part of all this is that Rice does it with uncharacteristically sparse, sometimes lyrical prose - there's none of the annoying rococo flourishes of her weaker books. And Ramses himself is a fascinating fictional creation, a man outside of time, a being who's seen so much and yet is confronted with a thousand new sights in the modern world. Rice does a wonderful job of juxtaposing his learning curve with his certainties, as when Julie tries to tell him about the courts and the justice system that will eventually catch up with the perfidious Henry:

She took him by the hand and led him up the stairs. Once again, he studied everything about him. Only this time he paused to examine the porcelain whatnots on the shelf. He stopped beneath her father's portrait in the upstairs hall.

"Lawrence," he said. Then, looking intently at her: "Henry? Where is Henry?"

"I shall take care of Henry," she said. "Time and the courts of law ... judicium ... justice shall take care of Henry."

He indicated he was not satisfied with this answer. He drew the paring knife out of his pocket and ran his thumb along the blade. "I, Ramses, shall kill Henry."

"No!" Her hands flew to her lips. "No. Justice. Law!" she said. "We are a people of courts and laws. When the time comes ..." But she broke down. She could say no more. The tears welled in her eyes. It was hitting her again. Henry robbed Father of this triumph, this mystery, this very moment. "No," she said as he tried to steady her.

He put his hand on his chest. "I, Ramses, am justice," he said. "King, court, justice."

Well, OK - maybe one or two rococo flourishes, here and there! But still: The Mummy is mighty satisfying.

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