Horror as a Second Language (Fresh New Horror From Other Places & Cultures)


When we look at the tradition of Horror, we tend to embrace its ethnocentrism as a characteristic of the genre – a living trope, if you will.

We think that the construction of the genre happened in a Western vacuum and that there exists some kind of “proof” that no one else shares in the tradition of true scary tale telling. It is as though it is not legitimate if it is not published in an English-speaking country and contains predictable Western characters living out a familiar plot. We point at the acknowledged (and therefore “official”) history of Horror without recognizing that those who have judged our stories and uplifted the genre’s profile to (at times) cult status have also been “traditionally” white and male and Western – the same ones who historically controlled the presses and the public’s choice of content and access to the written word. Are we right, then, to assume that no one else is (or has ever been) writing Horror of value?

The answer is a resounding no; Horror is neither exclusive nor rare – not in experience nor the storytelling. And perhaps the key as to why we seem at a creative and Literary stalemate in our modern writings is ensconced in the significance of “how” – in having fashioned this odd, culturally exclusive bubble – all of our best efforts have resulted in a kind of genetically compromised inbreeding of ideas. In our hand-over-fist attempts to understand what we think Horror formula is or should be, perhaps it is we who have become the victims of our own intent to discredit others.

This means our contemporary problems (especially in American Horror) may well have grown in its isolated and lonesome Petrie dish to be not only about who is telling what stories, but about the future of the American side of the genre. We are unquestionably at a Literary and creative impasse.

And we had better start asking what happens when all of the 1970s-1980s bestselling authors stop writing. What exactly will we do then?

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Robbing Horror From Other Cradles

At a time when we are unwilling or unable to create the kind of Horror that excites our readers and grows our constituency, we need an infusion of original DNA – the kind of DNA that descends from folklore and fairy tales – the gritty stuff of childhood fears. And we need to do this shamelessly – borrowing from those older traditions tucked neatly into vague heritages because while we were being all puffy and proud about our modern sophistication and electronic gadgets, what we call The Old World was still telling scary tales of things that go bump in the night. And people who grow up with those storytelling traditions clearly have a thing or two to teach us about where we all (and our monsters) come from.

For those of us on this side of the pond, it’s time to climb out of the creative box we have put ourselves in – from what we call our genre to who writes in it. We have no proprietary rights here; just because some smarty-pants marketing department decided to print the word “Horror” on the spines of countless Western paperbacks in the 1970’s does not mean it is the correct name to call our genre, or the one with which the rest of the world concurs. Nor does it mean that the rest of the world interprets “Horror” in the same way as we do in the West.

Why has our Horror all become one-dimensional? Homogenous and flat? Because “we” have decided what formulas constitute Horror, all to the denigration of other traditions of storytelling.

Yet isn’t that where we got our ideas about Horror in the first place? It’s time we confessed the truth: the West did not invent Horror. We may have perfected a branch of the tree, but we are not the whole of it. Our roots go much, much deeper and come from afar…

And every person who came here brought a little piece of that with them.

We cannot claim to not-know this entirely. Our genre’s historic use of Orientalism and racism to further heighten a presumed white reader’s fears or to elevate the exotic mystery and exploit the willing ignorance of a class of readers groomed to see themselves perfected in an ethnocentric mirror is no different in Horror than in any other genre. But in Horror, it has fast become this almost-necessary ingredient we are directed to mimic. Because we have not been able to “move the Literary needle” in American Horror since Lovecraft, that is where we are directed to learn about how to write the good stuff.

But what if we don’t want to because no one does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft, and most importantly, because the rest of us are no longer as threatened by different peoples or cultures? What happens when dread and fear turn away from dimly lit rural areas with secret histories to vibrancy, exploration and inclusion? What happens to Lovecraft mimicry?

What happens when we have outgrown that narrow Worldview?

Today most of us are able to acknowledge the pinch of this and dash of that from other cultures and folkways that have driven the more muted successes that line the cages of our genre and we are increasingly curious about it. From Japanese filmmakers to Russian folklore, we are intrigued by the monsters some part of us always suspected were watching us from the shadows. More importantly, we are starting to ask what happens when in following the Lovecraft-enamored lead of the Western Horror Establishment we continue to drown out international and “minority”- voiced Horror, displacing it as an anomaly or christening it Other-relevant “Literature” to keep it at a safe distance.

Horror should never be “safe.” And trying to hold onto Lovecraft and the singular whiteness of Horror is contributing to the lack of historical awareness so necessary in our genre.

It so reminds me of that unfortunate music fan who suggested that Paul McCartney was lucky to receive a “break” from Kanye West and might someday make something of himself “Cuz Kanye just handed this guy a career”… (not a shining moment.)

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Why don’t we KNOW where we come from? And isn’t it possible that this very tone deafness is one of the contributing causes to the endless cookie cutter “plateauing” of scary in the genre as we know it?

If we really dare to look at the Horror genre’s origins, we will find the richest veins in folk and fairy tales from our Old Countries – the very things an “advanced” and “civilized” culture likes to mock. But in the dark of the night, isn’t that where Horror gets under our skin uninvited, rummaging about and prickling our skins? Does it really matter where the scary images come from if they are coming after us?

It’s time we started researching the rest of the world’s stories – rediscovering some, and hearing others for the first time. Because these are the stories and the traditions we carry with us as we move through the world, colliding with each other. Of course this means learning about other people, how they live and think. It means letting ourselves sink into other life ways in order to find the Horror we crave.

And it means allowing ourselves to be corrected… To acknowledge real history, real traditions, and the real Peoples who live them intimately. It also means admitting to ourselves that we live in bastardized, cannibalized times. We bring fragments of Horrors from our lineages, and those halflings collide unceremoniously with Things That Were Already Here. Isn’t it time we exploited our own ignorance? Paid the price of our own desire to minimize our once hidden roots? Our personal roots?

We don’t need sacred Indian Burial Grounds or gypsy curses to amp up our Horrors… we have our own sins making monsters in urban factories right now.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read those first-hand accounts and value them for themselves…to inspire and remind us that we have our own stories if we will just stop and look. It helps us to see how other people tell these tales, to “spin” our vocabulary, to look askew at what we cannot see directly. We need to, not only for ourselves, but because of the obvious: we no longer live in a vacuum no matter how many walls we endeavor to build. We need to see that even Lovecraft would have a hard time being Lovecraft today.

And is it really such a bad thing – really – to stop “using” other peoples whose customs we don’t know to scare our readers with? Because in a global economy, there are no secrets – not really. If a writer makes something up for the benefit of plot, he or she will ultimately be exposed for the careless or arrogantly conceived error and deservedly so. But there are wondrous stories to be had, to savor just as they are – cultural accents and all.

Of course, this means getting out of our comfort zone. But that is the nature of Horror, isn’t it? And haven’t we learned that wondrous things await if only by way of Japan and its gift of Godzilla, and its ghost traditions pushing into our own culture by way of films like Ringu (The Ring)and The Grudge and the world of Manga?

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 It’s All About Language and Culture and Horror Underfoot

While it’s hard to believe that modern music fans don’t always know the names of the bands and musicians that shaped the genre they are in, we of the Horror genre should not throw stones. We are doing the same thing right now, oblivious to our own genre history, crashing about like the proverbial bull in the china shop looking for a new mythos when we don’t even know the last one. We don’t learn our genre history, which squares so nicely with no one teaching it to us. We just keep clinging to the Lovecraft life raft, even if it happens to be the Titanic.

How long before we have a Paul McCartney-Kanye West moment of our own? You realize it is more likely to happen the smaller we make our universe, right?

We like to think that the Horror galaxy revolves around a white, Christian, English-speaking sun – because the little of “everything” we know tells us this…

Yet we could not be more wrong. All of our best tales descend from our Old World roots…and that must mean that out there somewhere is the motherlode of scary… It’s not, after all, like we haven’t drank from that well before – Horror was seeded in our early days of human history, and we have carried remnants of it out into our new and ever changing world with countless diasporas. Yet we tend to not use this personal version of Horror DNA. Instead we look askew at stories presented by “other” countries, often in “other” languages.

Up to this moment, we have hidden behind our world dominance. We have blatantly bragged that those who want to be heard need to speak the way we want to hear language. We don’t read foreign authors, we don’t like names or place names we cannot pronounce, cities we cannot picture, weather that does not mirror our own. We also don’t like the pools of secrecy we ourselves create when we push groups of humanity into the shadows of our entitlement and the people there speak words we don’t know the full meaning of. This is true whether such people on the margins speak Spanish or Black English or something from the Middle East.

Let’s just admit it: we are control freaks. We have a driving need to understand the nuance of every word we read, every meaning implied. And even though in the Horror genre, that can be an absolute necessity to “getting” it, there is still more to our aversion to works that come from “Other” places…

From International writers writing in other languages, to works written that speak of other traditions and cultural importances… we dislike the feeling that there are secrets being coded for certain readers. We feel that way about slang and inner city lingo as surely as we stink eye the immigrants speaking Spanish in the lunch room. Yet we need to get beyond our own Lovecraftian self-importance… we are missing out on some great storytelling – the kind that sends you to your own keyboard and pokes the Muse.

And alas, we are going to have to work for it…because language has its own cultural complications— the most obvious being when dealing with those which are “not-English.”

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One of the biggest problems for international writers is being read by English Speakers. We are less likely to be bilingual than most other cultures, assured as we are that it is English that will continue to dominate everything that matters on the world stage.

And what this means is that we take our arrogances into the Literature we read… We not only fully expect to read things in our language, but we judge it differently even when it is delivered thusly. We underestimate what it means for a work to be translated.

In fact, we all too often misinterpret a writer’s talent by the fluency of the translator. However sometimes translators are “functional” but not “artistic.” Where all writers need translators with the eyes and ears and imaginations of poets, all too often we get novels that instead of reading like Dostoevsky, read like Google. This is due to cost, availability of a good translator, and having someone who can judge the finished product properly. Once one leaves their native language, this can be a real challenge – for writers and editors.

This is a real problem. The author needs a fluent translator to make their work accessible in other languages – languages they likely do not speak. And because they do not speak it, they cannot easily judge when a translator is fluent in both languages – fluent enough to tap into nuance and vocabulary yet still capture both those necessary interpretations as well as the voice of the author.

Translation matters, whether we are talking editing an inner city/urban work or a foreign one. And just as we ascribe proofreading errors to writers and their talent, we associate a translation with the quality of the original work if not the literal intelligence of the author. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth: nuance of the native tongue once lost results in a confusion of original intent, of the poetry of the prose and disagreement about what the original text meant.

 

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Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You: a Ghost Story – an example of how translation should work FOR the work…

 

So we have to expect this kind of disparity to happen in translations of works that come from other language traditions. We have to be patient…flexible.

But we also have problems with writers who use what we have been institutionally guided to consider “bad” “incorrect” or “flawed” English…the most noticeable of which has been “Black, Regional, or Urban” English. In fact, we have the exact same problem in native speakers of English when it comes to interpreting and accepting slang, and cultural diversity within a work.

While sometimes we cannot connect to the story because we are not the intended audience, it is a fact that we tend to shy away from stories that involve language we are unable to “decode”…

Sometimes it is because we simply cannot pick up on the important nuances, the cues, the double entendre – the dog whistles. Never mind that this is because we are used to our own dog whistles…We feel shut out in the same way people from other cultures feel shut out when reading about ours. We simply have gotten used to the idea that being “top dog” in the publishing of Horror, it was “everyone else’s” job to understand the nuances of what we meant.

The shoe always pinches when it is on the other foot…But pinching is a sign that there is something alive in the shoe – that maybe the shoe is wrong, not the foot. We need to have the patience to unwrap the mysterious gift. Yet we have been institutionalized right out of the curiosity.

We bristle for example when non-Christian references are in the stories, unless we can give them the appropriate “Lovecraft spin” where exotic means “sinister” and “threatening”… And if the character does not look and act like us, we feel summarily “excluded”… as if “our” genre has been pirated…invaded. This is one reason why women wrote pulp and men wrote Literature back in the day…and why the inference remains a ghost on the battlefield of diversity in Horror today.

Because “today” we are excluding Horror from all over – including right under foot. We have been taught that reading should be easy and entertaining. We have forgotten that reading – especially Literature with its references to history and socio-economics and tyranny and justice– is work…

Publishers “get” this – that we are now not only lazy but expected to remain content to be lazy from here on – and clearly consider that this is far too complicated an issue to fix. So instead of new and exciting and different Horror, we have Horror from “Other” countries and cultures being farmed out to other genres or marketed as Literary statements – fodder for Critical Thinkers and Lit-lovers to decipher and ruminate upon. The face value of the story-telling is simply dismissed.

The very idea that Horror should include more than monsters is being banished while having the Bible of Lovecraft waved in our faces. Talk about contradiction. No wonder American Horror writers are all-too-often writing peculiarly ineffective and vacant fiction…

Banishing all works by “Others” which doesn’t carry a pre-approved Lovecraftian exploitation of fearing the same “Others” only re-confirms our suspicion that this makes these works not really Horror…Because Horror comes in only one color and one flavor: vanilla.

We further conjecture that all American Horror should be non-threatening and easy-to-digest, even when salaciously gory. And as the market for Horror tightens, the belief is becoming reinforced – making the whole idea that we all should be writing in some way like Lovecraft while being all pulpy and writing fast moving, two-dimensional action figure prose right into that very pair of cement shoes dragging the whole genre to the soggy bottom…

We have a tendency to decide that we are better off to reject works which require a bit of decoding.

We don’t want to think and we don’t want to go outside our comfort zone. But isn’t that exactly the price of admission? Isn’t that the very essence of Horror?

We have done this with African Americans for decades. We shrink from the use of Black English because we are just not sure what to do with it. Is it a dialect? Is it just “bad” English? Is it a regionalism? Slang?

And what about regionalism? Does a Southern character or a Southern accent make the Horror Southern Gothic and Literature because we don’t want to work to understand it in Horror? Why is Horror only Horror if the dialogue fits in a comic book balloon?

Why does it matter in Literature? How many Cockney accents have we navigated in English Literature because it was part of the story? Part of the setting? The time-and-place of historical value?

Experts are still in debate over it. And meanwhile editors everywhere – especially in traditional publishing – are at a loss as to how to edit such fiction. It is far easier to call “Black” and “Other” writing niche and reject the work, or pronounce it too burdened with Literary elements because most likely it will take African American and “Other”editors to edit such works submitted for publication…editors from the culture the story comes from in order to edit the right things out and clarify the things that need to stay in.

Decisions have to be made as to whether the language in the work is supposed to (pardon the pun) add “color” to the language, to orient characters and setting, but also as to whether or not it is also meant to exclude certain readers not in the intended audience, or to educate them into a different culture and viewpoint.

This is not as easy as it would seem. And this affects international and national works as quickly as it effects regional U.S. ones…

For one thing, we have been taught that language is either right or wrong in its execution. Yet we have so many regional subcultures in the English language alone we should be familiar with the fact that such “color” when added to Literature seats that work firmly in a time or place – it becomes part of setting and character. The only good excuse for exclusion on these grounds is when the work cannot be in some way “accessible” and its meaning appreciated by outsiders to a storytelling degree.

For example, when a work comes from another culture, country or language, the author or translator should allow for some “redundant” coaching… some of the native language should stay in the story – reminding the reader where it is coming from.

Example: “Mira,” said Pablo, “Look.” (Mira means “look.. And we learned something from the redundancy without losing the author’s proficiency of language.)

But there are also other cultural things that need explanation for new and “reverse-Other” readers.

Example: “When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname but refuses to use it, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first. It’s not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or a caress in a Hindi movie, a husband’s name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so, instead of saying Ashoke’s name, she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as ‘Are you listening to me?’” (From Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake)

(Here we have learned about the character, her husband and her culture…yet presented in a way that does not offend the outsider or someone from that culture because it adds color to the prose.)

This is how good writing and proper editing is done. It is not the job of the reader to figure things out, but the job of the writer to draw us in – to make us want to learn more and to learn something by way of the story in spite of ourselves. And it is the job of the editor to help us all get there, especially in translation and even in our own language.

Those of us who like Horror already speak a second language – the language of our genre. Most of us who like Horror like it for the escapism – and the one predictable trope that never, ever changes: not the one about white creation myths, but the one that proves time and again, through ghost and monster and sheer coincidence that justice will prevail through the impersonal and savage law of nature because we are none of us innocent.

In the world of Horror where cross-pollination is key, we need different voices – ones whose different cultures or ways of speaking frame Horror in a new light, cast shadows in familiar yet peculiar angles…

Sometimes I think it must just feel like too much work to resolve in the eyes of traditional publishing – too much work for too much of a gamble…And that is exactly how we keep winding up with the same voices in Horror and Literature, all speaking the same way…It’s how we lost our DNA, our sense of direction and originality nested in our commonality.

So take a minute. Peruse the following list of writers from all over – including a few right here in these United States whose work was probably labelled a bit “niche.” You want new Horror? Original Horror?

Start here. And yes, there are Americans on it – either from or influenced by somewhere else, and in one case from traditions outside the mainstream but homegrown nonetheless…These are voices of different cultures…

Get your crucifixes… because these writers are the future of Horror – if we will only open our eyes and read.

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Horror Authors Unseen – A List From Here to Everywhere Else

Asa Nomani (Japan) Now You’re One of Us

Otsuichi (Japan) Goth

Asamatsu Ken (Japan) Queen of K’n-Yan

Mariko Koike (Japan) The Graveyard Apartment

Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland) I Remember You

John Ajvide Lindquist (Sweden) Let the Right One In

Karin Tidbeck (Sweden) Amatka

Eden Royce (African American/Gullah and Southern Gothic influence) Spook Lights, Tying the Devil’s Shoestrings –YA coming Summer 2020

Tananarive Due (African American/Nigerian influence) My Soul To Keep

Violet Kupersmith (Vietnamese American) The Frangipani Hotel

Stephen Graham Jones (Native American) Mapping the Interior

David Bowles (Mexican American) Chupacabra Vengeance

Jeremias Gotthelf (Germany) The Black Spider

Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) You Should Have Left

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands) Hex

John Harwood (Australia) The Ghost Writer

Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lankan-Australian) Springtime, a Ghost Story

Simone St. James (Canada) The Haunting of Maddie Clare

Cherie Dimaline (Canadian First Nations) The Marrow Thieves

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Canadian-Mexican) Certain Dark Things

Samuel Marolla (Italy) Black Tea and Other Tales

Giorgia de Maria (Italy) The Twenty Days of Turin

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina) Fever Dream

Guillermo del Toro (Mexico/Mexican American) Pan’s Labyrinthe

Luis Abbadie (Mexico) El código secreto del Necronomicón(The Secret Code of the Neconomicon)

Julio Cortezar (Argentina) Tomada House

Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) Demonia (and Other Stories)

J.F. Gonzalez (Spanish American) Clickers

Carmen Maria Machado (Cuban American) Her Body and Other Parties

Andres Barba (Spain) Such Small Hands

Zhou Haohui (China) Valley of Terror

Han Kang (South Korea) The Vegetarian

Rene Depestre (Haiti) Hadriana in All My Dreams

Carolina Sanin (Columbia) The Children

Sadegh Hedayat (Iran) The Blind Owl

Otessa Mosfegh (Croatian Iranian) Eileen

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik (Egypt) Beyond Nature

Ania Ahlborn (Polish American) Within These Walls

Anna Starobinets (Russia) The Recrudescence of the Cold

Tony Vilgotsky (Russia) Eye of Satan (aka Warriors of the Church)

Ludmila Petrushevskaya (Russia) There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales

Nuzo Onoh (Nigerian British) The Reluctant Dead

Amos Tutuola ( Nigeria) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

 

 

Return of the Mummy: Re-Wrapping Unsavory Truths for a Globally Aware World


It’s not just about grave-robbing anymore…

Somehow, that is the potential problem that plagues the modern Mummy, still interpreted by Hollywood primarily…Instead we are obsessed with special effects, popular movie stars, and ancient curses we manage to make up ourselves. Always we decorate our interpretations of Mummy stories with elaborate bigotries and racist caricature.

Nowhere in the past have we treated the culture we are robbing to tell the Mummy’s tale with the respect it is due, nor in a way that enhances the story.

What a shame…For with the Mummy we stand among the most powerful subgenres in Horror – in the fertile ground of the Gothic Romance and the Ghost Story, amidst a magnificent example of marginalization of the Other: the grave-robbing of an antiquated culture for fun and profit, and the exotic dead laced with the desperation of revenge.

Somehow, with visions of pulp and action adventure blockbuster receipts dancing in our heads, we have lost interest in what the Mummy really represents. The true heart of the story is not about love and reincarnation: the real purpose of the Mummy has always been revenge for the wanton disregard of the dead of Others… And we have carefully crafted something else again.

As we await the release of a yet another new Mummy film and the recent publication of a new (overdue) Mummy anthology, we are reminded to consider exactly why the Mummy disappeared from view, becoming the least-utilized trope in contemporary Horror.

Why did the Mummy go away? And is his tale done being told?

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Orientalism: Our Nasty Little, Overripe Secret

Most of us today aren’t quite sure what to make of the Egyptian Mummy, of Bog People, of ancient Andean Children found mummified on mountain tops… We are, after all, human. We are curious, simultaneously drawn and repulsed by the exposure of the desiccated bodies of mysterious, long-dead people. But we are also voyeurs. We relish the encouraged and unseemly study of remains, the ghoulish poking and prodding of one who cannot expose our unnatural interests, the very public humiliation of a helpless human being we can dehumanize further by simply pronouncing that being “ancient and dead” in the same sentence.

It is a most intimate and unforgivable form of desecration. Under cover of scientific curiosity we allow it because of the historical distance we can put between us in our modern civility and sophistication, and (ironically) a primitive people who were so technologically advanced we are still trying to decipher how they did so many wondrous things.

We have not only talked ourselves into an entitlement to find and break into tombs in the name of research, but we have made ourselves the official filter of their stories. And we have long taken liberties.

Why, then, was this ever okay?

Is it because we believe now as we believed then that we deserve to know the secrets of vanished civilizations? Is it because we also fear becoming vanished and hope to avert whatever dictate of fate caused the demise of those civilizations? Or are we simply hiding behind a convenient behavioral pattern humanity has historically exploited since our sordid beginnings – one that inspires those in power flaunting the most cultural currency to mock and then destroy the cultures they overrun?

Why is it not only okay but fashionable to display the bodies of ancient or conquered cultures? We are obliged to admit we have done this before… and indeed, we continue to do it…

The answer is called Orientalism… which according to Edward Said, dates from the period of European Enlightenment and the colonization of the Arab world. It is also a Critical term, and as such it means that using art and writing, we interpret predominantly Arab cultures not with facts, but with wild imaginings that include the distortion of actual facts, the exaggeration of unfavorable characteristics, the labelling of local practices as primitive, suspect and dangerous, the strong suggestion that choosing to live certain ways or adopt certain religious beliefs other than Judeo-Christian ones are simply proof of superstitious ignorance.

For instance, with the Mummy, we have created malevolent Egyptian spirits and forcefully superimposed the belief of reincarnation on a culture that had no such religious interpretation, the idea of which would have been as abhorrent to the Egyptians as the concept of reanimating a corpse. (Guran 10-11) Indeed, despite our contemporary obligation to tell modern Mummy stories that conform to the historical facts we dug them up for, we have not always been so considerate to our Mummies as fictional characters.

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We have taken liberties that seem to be inspired by what we know about Mummies in general – that there were a lot of ancient Egyptians who lived and died, and a lot of them were mummified as part of religious burial practices, some historians estimating that some “730 million corpses were mummified” during the period, and that there were so many, they ran out of places to put them… (Stephens x) With so many, with no names, with no place to keep them, what harm is there?

Assumptions were then made based on our knowledge of human nature – that if a body is buried with any form of valuable, that burial site might well be pillaged for the wealth by anyone, thereby providing ample need for a curse or two and a ready explanation for inscriptions found on the occasional tomb but which we do not understand. We take “poetic license” and color our fiction with it –letting fear imply truth, despite facts.

The misinterpretation of what we have pronounced “curses” might – according to researchers – “have been directed at would-be tomb-robbers of their own epoch” whose efforts to extract even minor wealth might damage the mummy or the tomb and therefore the identity and spiritual welfare of the person buried within, rendering the spirit homeless and nameless (Weigall 2). And while it is the mark of good fiction to commandeer such details to create a good Horror story, we still have a responsibility to remain truthful.

Indeed, perhaps we came to assume once too often, eventually even believing that within witnessing the local misappropriation of mummies for all manner of uses – including thatching roofs, grinding up as elixirs, as fertilizer, as a food condiment, locomotive fuel, and general disregard (Stephens x) – was an implied permission to further abuse the memories of those dead. But those who descend from a culture have their own ancestors to answer to in the end. And those who are not-so-related have an obligation to decency – even in fiction, which sometimes survives longer.

We may be better educated today, but Orientalism is, alas, not a thing of the past. And this has inhibited the creation of new (and better) Mummy stories. Rather than get our hands dirty by doing research and letting the truth inspire better told tales, we cling to our old, tried and true Orientalist tendencies. Or we remain silent entirely, moving on to other, more easily rendered monsters.

We prove it each time we refuse to educate ourselves on the wars in the Middle East, when we look at a Sikh and call him a Muslim, when we look at a Muslim and see a terrorist… even when we look at Native Americans and name sports teams after them. We are far from out of the woods… some days farther than others.

But the difference is that today if we write something and don’t properly vet the information, there are more people willing to stand up and call us out on our ignorance. That is scary if one thinks of creative writing as a place we can make facts up to carry the plot in a story about a real people, because that simply isn’t true.

It is daunting once one realizes how far out of our own depth we are when we write about other cultures. It should be.

And there are more people who are willing to really look at what our interpretation of Egyptian mythology and religion says about us… proving that turnabout is indeed, fair play…

When the internet happened, suddenly a lot of us discovered just what a minority we are in the scope of the world, and just how ignorant our own ignorance was making us appear to be.

It was the Mummy’s fault, of course. He’s been after us all for a long, long time. Perhaps it was all that glossed-over, rationalized grave robbing…

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So we disappeared the Mummy partly in embarrassment.

Times changed.

Suddenly, there was no good way to tell a Mummy story without being politically incorrect. But instead of embracing that and re-working the Mummy stories into what they always were at heart – a really great ghost story – we just re-entombed him.

We recycled the old infused with new special effects, but we contributed nothing to the dialog…at least until Anne Rice tried her very adept hand in 1989. Yet still the Mummy did not seize our imaginations anymore.

We buried him with the truths science was bringing forth, allowing ourselves to be intrigued and amazed – but never to be outraged that we are circulating the bodies of the un-exhumed dead. Could it have been a wee bit of guilt?

Make no mistake. These are dead people. People consigned to the earth under the implicit promise we all expect to be honored that our eternal rest will not be disturbed…

What are we doing putting them on display?

And why do we assume that those so long dead are simply not aware, in whatever afterlife they may reside?

I cringe each time I see these exhibitions glorified…each time a tomb is discovered and opened. Granted, maybe it is watching too may Horror movies, maybe it is reading and writing far too much Horror…

But there are stories. True stories. And they should rattle your inner Mummy…Because if you are looking to write a new Mummy story, you don’t have to go farther than some real Ghost Stories..

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The Black Hope Horror: a Modern Mummy Tale Without a Mummy

In 1982, they made a little summer blockbuster called Poltergeist. But what most people don’t know (or perhaps remember), is that the movie was loosely based on fact: that an entire modern housing area was built upon an old cemetery – a cemetery of a certain age and containing the remains of African Americans, some of whom were freed slaves. The movie had absolutely nothing to do with poltergeists. It had to do with what happened in real life: the disturbance of graves.

So old was the cemetery in question with the last burial in 1939, that developers decided it would be too expensive to relocate the graves and relatives too deceased themselves or too scattered to be the wiser. A wealthy subdivision was built in the 1980’s on what had once been the Black Hope Cemetery in Houston, Texas.

 

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And the odd occurrences began almost immediately, accelerating for one family when they attempted to build a swimming pool. Some families were more troubled than others, some claim were never troubled. But the bottom line is that the incredible amount of alleged occurrences resulted in some of the most documented hauntings in modern American history.

 

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The remains of Betty and Charlie Thomas were found in the Haney’s backyard

 

And unbeknownst to many, this is not an unusual circumstance – this desecration of old cemetery grounds in the U.S. by developers and energy companies. Older cemeteries in rural areas are often overtaken by modern greed when they are found to be neglected, or so old descendants are not to be found to defend them. A number of coal companies are watched quite suspiciously in the Midwest, with aging descendants worried about what happens when they themselves are no longer around to protect the family plot.

Imagine that.

But would you believe that even within Black Hope, we hear this little parcel of Orientalism:

“Respect Houston is willing to move these graves to give them a proper burial,” she said, “provided we identify the people who are buried.”… http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/article/Black-Hope-horror-doesn-t-haunt-this-hood-9565799.php

Pardon me, but…they had a “proper burial.” The proper thing is to buy back the homes and raze the neighborhood. I don’t care how expensive it is. That is the “proper” thing to do because it doesn’t matter who these people were…they were people their community and loved ones buried. Period.

Yet these types of things are ongoing… Somewhere in the midst of our individual Orientalism we lost the respect for our own collective dead. Many of us just rationalize that “certain things must be done for the greater good” or that “the dead are dead and the living have needs that surpass promises made.”

One sees it all of the time in Horror fiction: the person who refuses to acknowledge a haunting because to do so means attrition must be made and compromise means loss; it is far easier to hope denial will make the facts go away.

Yet isn’t this fine fodder for any new Mummy? Because isn’t the message the same?

 

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Building a Better Mummy

Why did the Mummy go away in Horror fiction? The answer is because as he was, we out-grew him. The caricatures and racist overtures were embarrassing if not self-implicating. And as the world began to merge with social media and a cacophony of international voices found their stages, it was quickly apparent that we could no longer expect to just make things up and not be called on it. Justice for the Mummy came on the wings of the internet…

Thank heaven for Paula Guran and the Mammoth Book imprint. At last we now have a modern anthology of Mummy tales that manages to “go beyond” a bit, encasing a little less orientalism – provided you don’t look too close at the cover (if you modernize a mummy, you shouldn’t cheapen the effort by abandoning harmless yet important factual detail by using gauze to do it)… Overall I liked this collection – especially because of the attempt to recapture the “spirit” of the monster in more contemporary ways.

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The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead is long overdue, and although “padded” with older tales, offers some new versions of the story…But then many of us stay away from the Mummy, worried no doubt about the ease of misrepresentation. This collection proves we are at least trying to get there. And I for one challenge writers to try their hands at a good Mummy story… a good don’t disturb-the-sleeping-dead story… because they are indeed harder to write well today.

But be respectful. First, be human. Then, be civilized.

What is not-human is willingness to disturb, to rob, to steal the tiny real estate that is a gravesite for fame and monetary gain.

What is not-civilized is to parade about the body parts like those individuals have forfeited their right to peace and respect by the lack of living guardian-relatives.

It’s more than time for new Mummy tales. It’s time for a reiteration of the real message hanging blatantly beyond cheap shot summer blockbusters and tomb raiding which we continue to accept because we employ scientists to do it on our behalf. We are just not “entitled” to dig up dead people to satisfy our curiosity. And if we can’t academically help ourselves, we should respectfully study, document, photograph and return such remains to their rightful tombs.

It really is time we lived up to what we claimed – that we just wanted to learn about these people and their culture, no harm intended.

Those Mummies have told us their tales. It was amazing. I am grateful. Now put those people back. And it wouldn’t hurt to apologize – especially for whatever Tom Cruise is about to do.

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The fact is, the Mummy ‘s tale is far from finished. We have merely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to disturb the dead no matter how long they have been put to rest.

Within these parameters the Mummy could not be more timely – right now when the populations of many cities in many countries are overflowing, and the demand for real estate to accommodate housing and the growing of food has never been more pressing, when wars and atrocities spring up like weeds in spring. We are no longer at liberty to not-reside in properties that have not seen death, and we are like the ancient Egyptians before us, running out of places to bury people, have lost track of old cemeteries, have lost records of old murders and battles and tragedies. We are going to have to rediscover what it means to live alongside our legacies – the good and the bad – to appease angry spirits of those we might well offend.

Surely there is a great Mummy story in that. Because even now we are so not without blemish…And the reason it should haunt us is a human one. A primal one.

Make no mistake. Treating corpses like “things” is a slippery slope…first it is an unwrapping party, then it is digging for coal under great, great grandma… or building houses on old black cemeteries…

Eternal rest. Now that’s an entitlement no matter who you are.

 

References

Guran, Paula, ed. The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2017

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, c1979

Stephens, John Richard. “The Truth of the Mummy’s Curse” (introduction). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999

Weigall, Arthur. “The Malevolence of Ancient Egyptian Spirits.” ). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. Edited by John Richard Stephens. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999