Category Archives: Classics You’ve Never Read

Classics You’ve Never Read: Mummy Mia

Classic: a book that people praise and do not read.

-Mark Twain

In this series I have always endeavored to do several things:

  • Bring in a capsule-review of a piece of timeless fantasy literature, one you must read but have probably only seen
  • Analyze a theme I can detect in its greatness, something a fellow author or discerning reader would appreciate in their own work
  • Compare the written version of the tale to the mangling that Hollywood committed subsequently, and in so doing perhaps help to repair a great wrong done to a past master

Today, I can do none of those things. But a promise is a promise.

Last year I discovered to my shock that there was, in fact, no original tale of “The” Werewolf, which I always intended to read as part of this series. At that time I promised you, I would get around of course to the Mummy, and as part of that I bought and set aside this version for later reading. I have now completed that task– I might go so far as to say I survived it. And so I have an obligation to you now, to summarize, analyze and compare.

Hahn_critic_1Here, in a nutshell, it is.

The only one way I could recommend you read The Mummy! is if you are a person fascinated by train wrecks. If instead your goal is to identify a classic theme or thread of something to carry over into your own writing or future reading, you would be substantially better served by watching one of the movie-versions of the tale. You heard me, better off with the movie. But having uttered such blasphemy, I must admit I found the experience fascinating, though for all the wrong reasons. It could just be that, marooned with the enormous task of reading a 10-hour book, I fell into the literary equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

But there is something here after all. It’s just not a very good thing.

Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?

-1 Samuel 28:15

An early edition cover

In the history of this series I have never felt such an enormous divergence between what I expected, and the actual book. The weirdness commences without delay, at the sub-title:  A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Thus I started out punch-drunk, going into a classic horror tale but now alert for signs of the future.

I found precious few of either in the early pages, and started to make mental notes about what I had gotten myself into. Mystery, well sort of; intrigue definitely a better word. All the main characters– several of whom wither away into cameos or just disappear, and others who appear like shooting stars only to fade, yet once or twice come back near the end– but everyone shares the trait of ambition. Two daughters (whoops, three, comes in later) in line to be the next queen of England. Two brothers set to marry them, though neither couple is happy in the arrangement; the wheels start to turn. Fathers, father-figures and no less than three priests (each of course called Father), two doctors, various pompous lords, and naturally the requisite Greek princess and King of Ireland all have a role to play. All ambitious, all circling in conflict like carrion-birds, searching for the first scrap of a coherent plot they could pounce on.

Bottom Line for Busy Readers: If you’ve read Frankenstein and The Count of Monte Cristo, you have already seen every major element and plot theme you could drag kicking and screaming out of The Mummy! And they would come to you from stories where they belong and make sense. Some men go too far in the service of learning or fame; and it takes a powerful mind and spirit to persevere through trials and make all the deserving folks happy by the end. Whew.

The Mummy Cheops is raised purely in the service of the younger brother’s rankling impatience with life. His tutor, who turns out to be a complete clown, stokes him up, and one dirigible flight later they’re in Egypt, plunging into the depths of the Great Pyramid in complete ignorance of how little is left inside there by now (much less by the 22nd c.), as well as certain irrefutable facets of the mummification process itself, that authors in the Rosetta Stone generation weren’t yet aware of. Like the whole deal with the organs being across the room in jars. Never mind that, just hook up the galvanic battery (like every Hollywood movie used for Frankie), touch the corpse and zoop! Up hops Cheops, who without a word runs out of the pyramid, hijacks our heroes’ balloon and flies straight back to England where he crashes into a royal procession to honor the other brother, wrecking multiple balloons, killing scads of people, mortally wounding the queen, and then running into the shadows to become Public Enemy Number One.

I have so far made up nothing, stretched not a single fact nor misrepresented anyone’s character. I WISH I had this much imagination.

But the bizarreness is barely past the first turn. What part, you might ask, does the risen Pharoah play in the rest of our tale? Does he seek his lost love from ages past? Ooh, wisps and glimpses of that theme- Cheops mentions Arsinoe who was taken from him a couple times, and once comments that one of the princesses reminds him of “someone”. But no,

The Mummy makes no untoward advances, kidnaps no damsels. Does he then try to wreck England and rebuild his beloved Egypt? Not a whit of it– in fact, he never so much as tears a curtain or breaks a window despite lurking about and inspiring constant revulsion. Invoke a plague? Summon an undead army? No, and again no.

He talks.

The Mummy can’t shut up, in fact. No matter where the heroes are, Cheops appears, preceded by a “fiendish laugh”. I’m completely serious here: Cheops laughs whenever he is discovered, and at least half the time when he exits the scene. And his laughter is invariably described as fiendish. But for all the menace I should be feeling at this Fifty Shades level of repetition, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt only shows up to– I can hardly believe I’m writing this– offer advice.

And everyone hates him, and after a few sentences everyone agrees to follow his advice.

Karloff, 1932
Karloff, 1932

One sister, then the other, becomes queen of England; marriages are called on and off again, the people rise and fall, all at the hand of this jack-in-the-box in rags who pops up every twenty pages or so to shake his head at what fools these mortals be, tell them what to do next and then exit. Laughing fiendishly.

It doesn’t matter where you are. Milady’s boudoir, a cramped alleyway, a closely guarded jail cell, a crowded corridor in the royal palace. There’s a character who doesn’t know what will become of him or her, and the chuckle of ages precedes the appearance of Cheops. He doesn’t know the land, he’s never seen these wondrous mechanical marvels, he doesn’t speak the language (a blazing-fast reference to how “educated” folk speak Egyptian, thank goodness for rational explanations). He don’t know jack, frankly, but he understands human nature. And he plays the ruling class of Europe like Harpo Marx.

{Just one of a thousand unanswered questions– why, in hundreds of pages where everyone agrees that Cheops is a menace and a regicide, does not one person attempt to hunt him, or place him under arrest? The subject never even comes up.}

Stayyy asleeeep...
Staay asleeep…

All ends tolerably well, after the usual tropes of prince-in-disguise, non-princess discovers she’s an orphan (and actually a royal after all), the scorned nurse who swapped the babies, the priest who forswore his vows to watch over his daughter (now THERE’s a father-figure), and more. Cheops returns to Egypt, pontificates, lays down in his sarcophagus and goes back to… whatever state he was in before. At least he doesn’t laugh.

 A Writing Life

I’ve sounded harsh on the book so far, but I must rise to the defence of this author. Sarah

Has to make a living
Had to make a living

Loudon, turns out, needed to write a book when her father died and she was left with no income. I think we can all sympathize. She persevered to complete a huge novel, and wonder of wonders, it apparently led her future husband to meet her. Yeah, this book. Which did pretty well in its day, and led her to write several more tomes, weirdly again, about gardening.

And while I’ve had my fun romping along the overall theme and how different it is from expectations, I want to point out that on the tactical level, the lady can pen it. Each sentence, taken on its own, is just fine, her prose is flowing and quite descriptive. The paragraphs are often a bit superfluous, but that’s just one’s taste, how much you want to hear about the queen’s agonized state of mind or the general’s philosophy of fighting. Ms. Loudon adopted some amusing ideas, such as that virtually all the servants speak with the most loquacious vocabulary imaginable, and are able to respond to complaints and demands in language that would make Shakespeare reach for his dictionary, if he’d had one. This is evidently the offshoot of our future, that even the lowest classes have time to get a Master’s Degree in Long Words or something.

They Made a Movie (actually several)

Some CONFLICT, please

So it’s only the big picture that makes no sense. I came in expecting more menace, a true victory over evil, and something about what men should or should not do. It’s hardly Ms. Loudon’s job to live up to the formula created on film a hundred years and more after she wrote the book. Frankenstein was one of the only such works in existence in the 1820s; Carter was ten decades into the future, to give anyone a peek at an intact mummy’s tomb (and the first wisp of a curse around opening it). The whole Egypt-thing was popular in her day, so she ran with it; but the tale she was trying to tell was really about how much England would change (and ways in which it would be just the same) in 200 years.

Still… wouldn’t anyone find the idea of raising the dead after centuries to carry more consequence than this? My mind just can’t wrap around the strangeness of Cheops as he was first introduced to us in this tale. Give me Christopher Lee, in fact give me Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo, with themes like “leave Egypt alone” and fighting to the death (and beyond) to save your true love (and civilization as a bonus).

So I come to you today a humbled man. The people who wrote a long time ago didn’t always do better than the movie-makers who came along later to add explosions, and cultural conflict, and a monster who’s warm for the form of the heroine. The book is a long strange trip and I cannot honestly recommend it to you, though I’m glad I read it, in the same way I imagine folks claim they were happy they climbed a mountain on a rainy day when there was no view from the top. And by that I mean, lying.

But it was a kick, and for me that’s all. You know what I mean… that’s a wrap.

Classics You’ve Never Read: Your Money or Your Life

Classic: a book that people praise and do not read.

– Mark Twain

CoMC_Treasure1Unless you live in Tennessee, I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that just like me, you did not win an unthinkably huge pile of money last month in the Powerball lottery. Instead, I contributed a modest amount to someone else’s dreams, and in return received the entertainment value of a few days mooning over what I would do if… I’m fine with it, of course, but that may only be because there’s the chance at another jackpot waiting in my future. I buy tickets on occasion, just one or two, and I enjoy the thinking, the dreaming. As much as I complain about vet bills and car repairs, I don’t truly need the money.

We all know and fear how wealth could ruin our lives: the two seem opposed. I’ve blogged before about Ebeneezer Scrooge, one of my favorite tales of all time. Among the funniest routines from the days of radio was the defining skit of famous comedian and infamous tightwad Jack Benny.

{sound effect, Jack walking home on the street}

Robber: Stick ’em up!

Jack: Don’t shoot!

Robber: Your money or your life.

{enormous pause, studio audience laughing}

Robber: I said your money or your life!

Jack: I’m thinking, I’m thinking!

This week I’m delving into the bookend piece of A Christmas Carol. Every few years I re-read the classic tale about the guy who gets it right, who uses an immeasurable pile of money to correct injustice, gain a much-needed revenge, reward the virtuous and win back CoMC2_Guy_Pearcehis life. It’s both, not either, for Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

The tale itself, I assume you know. If you have not read it, or at least seen it, I can have very little to say to you, on any subject. This is one of those books you’d have to have on the desert island: it’s seminal to my thought process and quite simply one of the most ripping good adventure tales ever told. I find longer and longer versions over the years and like its story all the more. It was decades before I realized it must have originally been written in another language. I still don’t know if I believe that.

Yes, a Fantasy

Let’s not argue about this. Edmond Dantes is first mate on board a merchant ship in the days just before Waterloo, with a fiancee’ in port and a secret letter in pocket, looking exactly like a character in a story about the Alleged Real World.

But come now.

He promises his dying captain to deliver a letter. One letter, he promised. And three unhappily-met enemies later, he’s been robbed of his position and freedom, deprived of his family and lover, and buried alive in the Chateau d’If while Napoleon’s return rocks CoMC6Europe. Yes, a bit far-fetched as bad fortunes go. Then he meets that combination of Sokrates, St. Francis and Da Vinci in the Abbe Faria (next cell over). A man who knows multiple languages, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and history, but somehow tunnels too short, bringing himself to Dantes’ cell for the express purpose of turning our hero into a walking encyclopedia. The two men continue the tunnel (years of work), the Abbe dies just before they are done, and one body-swap-plus-near-drowning later, Edmond Dantes is free with CoMC5only the directions to a tiny island and its massive treasure to live on.

And by massive, I mean Powerball. Without the state and federal taxes.

Getting it Right

Now then, how many protagonists 1) get the treasure in the MIDDLE of the story AND 2) use it correctly? Aladdin, easy come easy go; not really good with money or power, he just loves the girl.  The Fisherman and his Wife, so not. The Dwarves in The Hobbit, almost no on both counts. But Edmond Dantes creates the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, CoMC_Treasure2appearing in Paris years later, to find all his enemies have become important people by climbing a ladder that had his heart on the bottom rung. The tale is just getting warmed up.

Dumas misses no opportunity to remind us what we already suspect: if people think you have money, a lot of doors open for you. Money is indeed power, over the spirit of weak and villainous people, and Dantes exploits this. He tosses around a gem the size of a swallow’s egg just to get an informant’s attention. A half-million francs is the price of one acting job from a villain who doesn’t realize how much truth he’s telling.

Yet everywhere you look, Dantes is not just getting his way with money, he’s passing judgment from it. Actually, his enemies are incriminating themselves: the wealthy banker jumps at each million the Count dangles like a treat before a puppy, and misses every time. By the same token, the noble and loyal from his former life are raised from poverty, saved from suicide, cleared to marry by Dantes’ wealth (aided, it must be admitted, by his love for theater).

The Obstacle of Wealth

CoMC4_Jim_CaviezelAuthors are often urged to throw down barriers to their heroes, for conflict. Chief among these I would say is poverty. Having a poor character creates sympathy, and brings in all its relatives like hunger, exhaustion, and spite from the “haves”; everything to do with time and distance is tougher because you can’t pay to overcome them. In Edmond Dantes, we’re looking at a man who has been horribly wronged, of whom it’s not too much to say that his life was taken from him. Now money, showers of it, and as much education as one might need, he already got that from the priest. It’s Batman without the mask– oh wait, he wears one of those too in the movies at times. And a cape of course. So it’s Batman, except his arch-villains have gotten themselves elected governor and federal judge and chairman of Gotham-Sachs. And who wouldn’t like to take down those guys?

Wealth brings a different obstacle.

Edmond Dantes is eagerly admitted wherever he goes, owns the fastest ship, employs the most loyal servants. Time and distance do not oppose him. His enemies are agog and ignorant of his intent. But he must be Justice itself: and who has sympathy for an avenging angel? The central question of The Count of Monte Cristo is whether he is after revenge or something more. By enacting his plans with perfection, he wreaks havoc on the lives of his enemies: you can hardly doubt he will succeed. It is not his goal, at first, to do justice. But when his perfect scheme causes worse than he intends, those plans must change. His next goal is not, at first, to survive. But a path to redemption opens when he places his trust in the one who wronged him least.

Mark these crucial moments in the unfolding of the plot, and you can see that beneath the layers of gold and jewels is still a man, named Edmond Dantes.

  • When his scheme to ruin the public prosecutor involves the man’s wife by indulging her CoMC3interest in poisoning, the Count fails at first to see that one of his worthy friends will be among her targets
  • He repairs the plan, but instead of simply humiliating or killing the prosecutor, he unexpectedly drives him mad
  • In the same way, his scheme for revenge upon the man who stole his fiancee’ centers around provoking their son to a duel, which the Count will of course win. But when Mercedes begs him with tears to spare the youth, the Count relents, and expects to be slain instead. Once again, for all his wealth and intelligence he fails to see the final outcome.
  • These blows to his omniscience bring Dantes humility, and in the end he even spares the man who robbed him of his position. He focuses instead on settling the fortune to his remaining friends (or their faithful children), and is himself stunned , as he re-enters the mortal realm, to find hope and a second life awaiting him.

Buying the Reader’s Love

So a staggering pile of loot is the means, rather than one of the ends of the story. How else can we sympathize with someone who has become rich and powerful, whatever he had suffered before? Edmond Dantes begins as a character with many admirable qualities,

Yes, it's me. Rodger Stebbins as Benedetto, Camp Dudley 1987. Sacre Dieu!
Yes, it’s me. Rodger Stebbins as Benedetto, Camp Dudley 1987. Sacre Dieu!

including courage, honesty, pride, perhaps much like the hero of your book. He suffers unjustly, in a way losing his life and passing through “death” in the Chateau d’If, then gains the means to balance the scales: most of us don’t know much about that, and in many tales when the hero gets rich we hear the happy-ending music. So the obstacle– indeed the peril of the mid-tale is that we will see thrills but lose this hero. The Count of Monte Cristo has wealth, but still no life. This angel of God’s vengeance comes down to earth again, where we can stop marveling and return to our affection. He is chastened, wiser, happier, and enjoys what is most important in human life, which is love and hope. Not wealth– or so those of us who didn’t hit the Powerball dearly want to believe!

When Edmond Dantes sails off to the horizon, it’s the end of the Count of Monte Cristo. But he is not yet forty years old. I think of his story often, as I re-read it often. Once since I began to chronicle the Lands of Hope, I thought myself at a crossroads and what came to me was his tale. Not because I sought revenge or justice, but I suppose I realized I was in the middle of a story (in fact, two of them). Dumas’ great classic can teach you a lot about where the end of the story lies. No matter what great tale you see, or how many you’ve told, there’s always an end whose place is “not yet”.  Like Dantes, you must always “Wait and hope”.sailing-into-the-sunset