After the endless, shambling horde of faceless zombie horror anthologies, The Book of the Dead presents stories centred on a rather more ancient and dignified genus of animated corpse: the Mummy. It also comes with a sort of official endorsement from the actual tradition of Egyptology, being “published in collaboration with the Egypt Exploration Society, the UK’s oldest independent funder of archaeological fieldwork and research in Egypt,” and introduced by John J. Johnston, Vice Chair of the Society.
The selection doesn’t rest on its premises, and the 19 stories range far wider than simply animated-bundle-of-bandages tales. If anything, the keynote of the anthology is variety and imagination. Of course, some simply have fun with the sarcophagus-full of cliches that inter the mummy myth, from titled Brits in topees to cats preserved in jars. That kind of ironic probing at the original premises and prejudices, though, allows for some surprisingly inventive and engaging tales.
The orientalism central to the tradition of the mummy gets its comeuppance in “Tollund,” where an eminent party of scholarly Muslim gentlemen investigating the Bog Men mummies in benighted Northern Europe meet a terrible fate at the hands of a being whose origins are intertwined with the genesis of their alternate universe. “Bit-U-Men” by Maria Dahvana Headley is one of the tales that delves creepily into the twisted sexual implications of the mummy myth, as does “All is Dust” by Den Patrick, which also touches on drugs. “Akhenaten Goes to Paris” by Louis Greenberg, meanwhile, presents mummy reanimation in a rather lighter, more prosaic context, tackling culture clash in a different context – for when the millennia of Egyptian culture confront modernity, the latter isn’t always flattered by the comparison. The simple themes of loss and memory are also covered, as in “Cerulean Memories” by Maurice Broaddus, and in a rather more modern social media form in “Henry” by Glen Mehn. And Egyptian myths and mummies aren’t the only ones tackled by any means, as with Sarah Newton’s “The Roof of the World.”
All in all, The Book of the Dead presents all the modern mummy stories you are ever likely to need. You wouldn’t believe that such a bundle of dry, dead, papery cliches could be reanimated so entertainingly, and sometimes gruesomely.