When the name Bram Stoker is uttered, an instant and highly specific horror icon is summoned. He has sharp teeth, red eyes, and (depending on the film) a very pointed widow’s peak. Indeed, Dracula is such a definitive piece of Gothic and late Victorian literature that most folks who’ve never read the 1897 novel still instantly know which vampire you are referring to by name. Over 200 movie adaptations and counting has that effect. Yet the walking cadaver of the Carpathians may not be Stoker’s only contribution to enduring horror movie icons. And too few realize he might’ve spurred the imagery we now associate with nearly every mummy movie.
While there have been few direct adaptations of his 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, and fewer still worth seeing, this early Edwardian yarn is potentially every bit as influential as its fanged predecessor, and one that seems to only grow more visibly infused in recent takes on the primal fear of an ancient Egyptian ghoul rising from the grave, such as in this month’s The Mummy remake. In the new movie, Sofia Boutella takes on the eponymous role of Ahmanet, a female Mummy whose archetype has long been a focal point for Universal Pictures’ numerous Egyptian-inspired movies. But as Ahmanet completes her transition from MacGuffin to Main Big Bad, she is completing what appears to be a century’s long journey of realizing Stoker’s original mummified thrill of seeing a New Woman menace rising in decayed sorceress garb.
The First Echo
Bram Stoker, a respected if often overlooked figure in his day, has become the enigmatic subject of many biographies in the ensuing decades. At the epicenter of British culture during its peak (and last gasp) of global dominance, the proudly Irish scribe was mostly regarded as a theater manager in life, playing Renfield to his employer and master, Sir Henry Irving (the first actor who was scandalously permitted a burial at Westminster Abbey). At Irving’s side, and with his esteemed Trinity College education in Dublin, Stoker lived a life both public yet intentionally in the wings.
But fortuitously, it was in those wings he crossed paths with many major figures in Irish, English, and even American society. One such crucial figure in Stoker’s formative years was Sir William Wilde, father of the tragic-brilliant Oscar. The nature of Abraham Stoker’s relationship with Oscar Wilde is still subject to debate—albeit Oscar often had tea with Stoker’s wife, Florence… Oscar’s one-time fiancée—but Bram was quite close in his early years to Oscar’s parents, Sir William and Jane Wilde. And it was the former who introduced Stoker to an obsession with Egyptology.
Sir William, known for his travels to Africa and abroad, apparently regaled Stoker with tales of his adventures in Egypt, including how in 1837 he discovered a mummy outside the burial ground of Saqqara and brought it back to Dublin. And its journey may not have truly ended until Boris Karloff donned Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup effects in Universal’s first 1932 stab at The Mummy.
A Blast from the Literary Past
Unlike Dracula, Stoker was hardly diving into a sordid and uncouth folklore when The Jewel of Seven Stars hit London bookshelves. Whereas vampires were still largely the realm of penny dreadfuls when the author offered a definitive take on the creature, a fascination with ancient Egypt and its perennial ghosts was already in vogue. Ever since Napoleon blundered into Egypt in 1798, the following 19th century saw Europeans taken with “Egyptomania.” The craze of walking like an Egyptian even reached the Victorians once the British government “generously” classified Egypt as a protectorate worthy of colonization in 1882. Hundreds of stories were subsequently published about Egyptian curses and mummies run amok. Egyptian queens and princesses in particular became romanticized (and eroticized) due to the appeal of preserved beauty.
Still The Jewel of Seven Stars is noteworthy, because it takes all of these elements and wraps them around the visage of resurrection and reincarnation. In the novel, the story essentially begins as a standard whodunit worthy of Stoker’s friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—who himself penned his own mummy short story, “Lot No. 249.” Written from the first-person perspective of Malcolm Ross, a young barrister with a Victorian collar so stiff that he makes Jonathan Harker look like a wild child, Jewel opens on Malcolm being called upon by Margaret Trelawny, a beautiful and dutiful young daughter. Her father Abel Trelawny, the revered Egyptologist in the Sir William mold, has fallen into a deathlike trance after a mysterious assault.
The “shocking” revelation of the novel’s midpoint is that Mr. Trelawny was attacked not by a burglar or hypnotist, but rather by a mummified cat, an ancient sorceress’ Familiar who’s long watched him from his bedroom collection of artifacts. Further, the feline is connected to a hidden tomb from the Valley of the Sorcerer which papa Trelawny raided 16 years ago. There, an enchantress called Queen Tera committed suicide by electing to be mummified alive, with the intent of rising again into eternal life.
Worst of all, however, is exactly when Trelawny was gazing on Tera’s tomb, his wife died in childbirth. Now that his daughter, whose premature birth Tera likely triggered, has come of age, there is a decent chance that Tera will or has already begun possessing Margaret. Also given that her mother was fully dead when Margaret was born, it is even left an open question whether Margaret died too and the young woman of the story is simply a spectral impression of Tera’s adolescent self. After all, she is apparently the spitting image of a portrait of the long-dead Tera and, at times, speaks authoritatively about Tera’s wishes.
The story culminates in an ancient pagan ceremony that Trelawny, Malcolm, and all the tale’s men conduct to simply see if they can raise Tera’s mummified body again. During the novel’s original and frankly sacrilegious ending, everything goes horribly wrong. In a nigh Lovecraftian wrinkle, the men channeling the wishes of Tera hasten their own demises as the experiment ends with all but Malcolm inexplicably dead, and the implication that a nude Tera has risen, replacing Margaret and free to roam the unprepared and masculine society of His Majesty’s England.
Could there be anything more cataclysmic for the world of modern man?
The Mummy Connections
As it stands, this antiquated story of Victorian nightmares (see below section) is radically different from the original Universal Mummy movie with Boris Karloff… and then again, it is not.
That 1932 film came one year after Carl Laemmle’s studio struck genre gold in the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein. So while the film may have taken the latter’s star, its makers, including infamous Dracula adapter John L. Balderston, conceivably turned to the former for some inspiration. In The Mummy, Karloff plays Imhotep, the titular monster who rises from his ancient Egyptian slumber to wreak havoc on the lives of those who entered his tomb. Like Tera, Imhotep appears to be alive when he was entombed, and both stories make much out of the fact that their “viscera” is intact and not placed in separate jars. Also like Tera, he slaughters at least one of his archeological grave robbers upon waking.
Similar to Stoker’s queen, Imhotep’s next move comes some years later, 10 to be exact, whereupon he concludes his narrative in a climax where he has a resurrection/reincarnation ceremony built around transferring the spirit of his long-lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon, into the scantily clad body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). The pre-Code picture certainly exploits the erotic imagery perversely associated with female mummies, but it also does this in a way that seems visibly informed by Queen Tera’s ultimate and triumphant aspiration of living again. Although, the Universal Picture has the supposedly happier ending as Imhotep is thwarted.
I cannot find any research to confirm that story editor Richard Schayer or screenwriter Balderston actually read Jewel of Seven Stars. Also the idea for the film was hatched by producer Carl Laemmle Jr. who desired to capitalize on renewed Egyptomania reaching American shores following the discovery of “King Tut” in 1922. The official story is Schayer found no specific Mummy story appropriate for his and Laemmle’s wishes in 1931, so he invented his own. Then again, given that Stoker’s by then-widowed Florence was a notorious stickler over copyright royalties (just ask the Nosferatu filmmakers), it may have been easier to lift broad concepts about resurrected queens (or princesses) while crafting an “original” story with a male role tailor-made for their new star in Karloff.
Dracula purists would, after all, be quick to point to Balderston’s stage adaptation and later 1931 movie version of Stoker’s most famous work as being one in name only.
Why The Jewel of Seven Stars Still Haunts
Whatever the case may be, The Jewel of Seven Stars is a fascinating and important work in horror fiction, if only for its time capsule attributes. Hardly as compelling a narrative as Dracula, it may still dive in more pronounced ways into the themes of that masterwork… and in a form not nearly as commendable to a modern eye. While Dracula features both negative and positive musings on the “New Woman” question vexing Victorian males, Jewel tackles the same anxieties, as well as those of an Old World versus a new English one to less optimistic results.
Unlike Universal’s The Mummy, where Helen yearns to see the “primitive” and sweetly backward ways of ancient Egypt, Stoker speculates the ancient Egyptians were as advanced as modern Victorians. Perhaps more so. In his novel, Queen Tera was in addition to being a sorceress also revered for the sciences she imparted on the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, including a form of electricity. Malcolm Ross even finds himself despairing that if their third act experiment succeeds, it would be the end of the assumed superiority of monotheism and Christianity.
“The whole possibility of the Great experiment to which we were now pledged was based on the reality of the existence of the Old Forces which seemed to be coming in contact with the New Civilisation… If there were truth at all in the belief of Ancient Egypt then their Gods had real existence, real power, real force…. If then the Old Gods held their forces, wherein was the supremacy of the new?”
But Malcolm’s greatest laments are in seeing the growing independence of Margaret as she falls more into the thrall of the liberated Tera. Trelawny happily ascents to Malcolm and Margaret’s engagement upon waking from his modern stupor, but Malcolm begins wondering if it’s all for naught as Margaret becomes more confident, self-assured, and purportedly gloomy. He even describes her as “New Margaret.”
Malcolm most fears the experiment will take her away from him. For as she grows more like Tera, the more she has the audacity to dispirit his peace of mind with her emotions, including becoming “diffident.” He eventually ponders if she was ever truly real, or merely a facsimile of a younger Tera that crafted onto a dead baby still in the womb.
It is in fact, this evolution of feminine independence that perhaps clues into why Malcolm lives and all the other men, including Margaret’s father, die. On the night of the experiment, the men feign scientific rationality as they lustfully unwrap Queen Tera’s body, revealing a perfect nude form covered in a bridal dress. Malcolm compares it to an ivory statue of antiquity. But as Margaret demands the men not stare at her naked form, only Malcolm attempts to obey his fiancee’s wishes and goes to the door, before she allows him to stay and look. None of the other men are so respectful to Tera/Margaret’s wishes.
“What does that matter? Sex is not a matter of years! A woman is a woman, if she has been dead five thousand centuries!”
At the end of the novel, all the men, who also watched the experiment first-hand as vapors and jewels began to glow around Tera’s body, are dead. Malcolm is not. But the curiosity is that in the dark of night (the power goes out and the lamps are smited in the experiment), Malcolm first mistakes Tera’s body for Margaret and escorts it after fainting upstairs. Upon returning, he discovers Margaret is dead and the body he took away was that of Tera, who vanished into the night, leaving behind her bridal gown that only Malcolm was given permission by Margaret to glimpse beneath.
A more logical ending might have been if the two bodies of Margaret and Tera became one, because their souls were clearly linked. My interpretation of it all is the girl that Malcolm knew as Margaret is entirely destroyed and consumed by the womanly Tera, who is now free to leave her father’s household, as well as Malcolm’s dominion, never to be seen again.
Tera Lives Again
Intentionally or not, 2017’s The Mummy returns to the specter that haunted Stoker’s Egyptian ghost story. Director Alex Kurtzman credits the Egyptian origins of Oscar Isaac’s fiend in X-Men: Apocalypse for the gender swap in his take on The Mummy tale. And indeed, he seems to have combined Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-Amon right down to their names merging into “Ahmanet.” (The name may also be a play on “Amunet” the ancient Egyptian goddess who’s a recurring presence in the also Dracula-influenced Showtime series, Penny Dreadful).
We even asked Kurtzman about it during a recent New York junket for The Mummy. While he admits he never knew about Jewel, he mused, “Now I have something to read. I’m going to remember that.”
Be that as it may, the visual of a strong, new woman returning from thousands of years ago to ruin a man’s calm—in this case Tom Cruise—is the stuff of Victorian night terrors. Just ask Bram Stoker.