Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Jewel Of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Ok, so what if I'm always willing to give an Irishman another chance? So Dracula didn't do it for me when I finally got around to reading it; no matter. The old boy's such a big name in Victorian horror, and has been so influential, that there was bound to be something he'd written that I'd like. And after a chance viewing of the original 1932 The Mummy, I was on something of a Mummy binge. I watched the Hammer Mummies, I re-read refutations of Tutankhamun's curse, and I gobbled up every Victorian era piece of Egyptian horror hokum I could- and that didn't take long, because there aren't that many.
Besides Conan Doyle's formative takes on the genre, and a few others (including The Beetle, and that crazy story where the mummy comes back to life in the far future), there was only one other serious piece of 'classic' mummy fiction that I had yet to tackle- and that was The Jewel of Seven Stars by old Abraham Stoker. And so we were to spend several more nights together, sifting through lumpy prose, spelunking for plot points and keeping a watchful eye in case any action showed up.

The action (or inaction as it'd be more accurately described), gets underway when a young lawyer called Malcolm Ross gets called to the house of one Margaret Trelawny. What's that you say? Not the daughter of the famous Egyptologist, Abel Trelawny? Why, the very same (Yeah, this is one of those universes where Egyptologists are household names)! Ah, but Stoker's playing it cool, and this plot-relevant tid-bit is kept from us for some little time. It's all part of his plan to make us think that Jewel is not a mystical horror story, but in fact one of those boring Victorian locked room whodunnits (look, I really don't care whodunnit, unless it was a mummy, in which case, GET TO THE MUMMY). Instead, we get to spend lots of time with several police officers who potter around in Trelawny's house, mostly not even leaving his room. They learn that old man Trelawny's been somehow put into a coma. Eventually, something that would have been immediately obvious to the characters is revealed to the reader: that Trelawny's room is absolutely crammed with Egyptian artifacts, including several mummified cats and even people.

At this, Malcolm and the policemen and doctors who are now on the case wonder if the artifacts could possibly be disseminating some kind of poisonous odour that the old man has picked up, so they start wearing face-masks when they're in the room. Strange things begin happening in the house at night, and suspicion quickly falls on young Margaret. This bothers Malcolm, because though he can see that she's the most likely culprit, she still makes his head go giddy and his stomach turn to mush. Well, that's something I can get behind, you know. I mean, we all know how much love sucks. But Malcolm is such a typical late-Victorian chaste goody-two-shoes romantic hero that he makes me a little bit sick myself. He puts Margaret up on a ridiculous pedestal constantly, making the love subplot contrived and unbelievable. His anguish and mood swings are the only things about him that strike a note of truth for a young man in love, but when it comes to Margaret herself, he never thinks anything that a real person would in such a situation. Did Victorian gentlemen really have to restrain even their thoughts like this? This part of the book goes on for way too long.

Anyway, after some time Abel Trelawny wakes up, and things start to look up for the reader. When one of his Egyptologist colleagues shows up at the house, Abel is forced to tell the gang some of the backstory behind the mysterious goings-on. It turns out that Abel and his man have something of a history of mucking about in cursed tombs- in particular, the tomb of one Queen Tera. Finally the story escapes the confines of Abel's bedroom (in the form of a flashback), and there's a few very effective chapters describing the history of this rogue queen, as well as the Englishmen's violation of her tomb.

Here Stoker manages to conjure up the mystic side of Egyptology, which really is what we all came for really, right? Tera's perfectly-preserved hand (notably white, mind you) gets removed, and starts turning up in some really weird places. My favourite part of the book is when they are lugging Tera's coffin through the desert after plundering her tomb, only to find their missing Arab servant lying dead with the missing mummy hand on top of him. If anyone is ticking boxes, yeah the Englishmen are accompanied by a bunch of untrustworthy, superstitious Arabs who come to nasty ends at the hands of the curse while their white masters, who instigated the tomb robbery, make it out alive. I guess the writers of the Hammer movies must have really loved that bit.

Tera's character herself is drawn pretty sketchily, and though she does control all the events of the plot, we never really feel like we know her. From what we do learn though, there's definite echoes of Ayesha from She going on- a powerful woman from an ancient civilization who uses sorcery to gain immortality. Tera plans to bring herself into the nascent 20th century in the 'northern land' she has always dreamed of: England. The particulars of her plan are very intricate, and Stoker has constructed a set-up of spells, amulets, and centuries-long plotting that Dan Brown would be proud of (err... might not seem like it, but that's a compliment). Another of my favourite bits is when the protagonists realise that the titular jewel of seven stars matches the stars of the plough, even though thousands of years ago, when Tera constructed it, they would not have been in the same position. It's a nice touch that brings home the vastness of the time involved and the perfection of her plan. There's plenty of other interesting Egyptological information, and it shows that Stoker really knew his stuff.

Meanwhile, the crew has relocated to Cornwall so that Trelawny can... help to raise the obviously evil (or at best extremely powerful, troublesome and unpredictable) Tera. He comes over all Doctor Frankenstein here, pondering on what modern people could learn from messing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. It's hinted that the Egyptians may have been far more advanced than us in many fields, including possibly having knowledge of radioactive materials (here Stoker again includes some ripped-from-the-headlines stuff). They begin to wonder what a successful resurrection of Tera would mean for their religious beliefs, which is a step further than most Victorian fiction usually goes! A good old-fashioned storm brews as they assemble the necessary equipment around her sarcophagus in a cave beneath their Cornwall house. Meanwhile, Malcolm is wondering why Margaret (who was conceived the moment her father had a mysterious 'missing time' episode in Tera's tomb, and who is the spitting image of the ancient queen) hasn't quite been acting herself lately...

It should be obvious that there is a lot of good stuff in The Jewel of Seven Stars. Stoker was something of a minor expert in Egyptology, and the book is better-researched than most of its ilk. There's definitely more going on here than just using Egypt as a handy place to pull spooky stories from; there's the fear that this time (unlike in Dracula), even science and modern technology might not be enough to save us from ancient evils. And like She, that evil will take the form of what a turn-of-the-century man would fear the most: a powerful, liberated woman.

But these interesting themes are marred by a pace that's slower than intercontinental drift, turning the non-Egyptological sections into quite a slog. And it would have helped if Malcolm wasn't such a wet blanket either. I would recommend this one only to those with a serious interest in the development of the 'Egyptian' theme in Victorian weird fiction. Well, that's what you get for trusting an Irishman...

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