Unwrapping Poe’s Mummy

When we think of Edgar Allan Poe, we think of his horror tales.  His face is the icon of macabre fiction.  And so when we see that he once wrote a tale about a mummy, we expect the full panoply of a monster story: Egyptian curses, the dead revivified, perhaps a monstrous beetle that devours the living.  But Poe was not just a writer of scary stories.  In fact, only about a third of his tales can be termed Horror.  Another third were satires and humorous tales.  That’s right, Edgar Allan Poe was a humorist, spinning tales to induce laughter, not chills.

In Poe’s short story, “Some Words with a Mummy,” a doctor and his friend unwrap a mummy, (actually people in the 19th Century loved to throw “Mummy Unwrapping Parties“) and discover his name is Allamistakeo (yes, the puns in Poe stories are usually this obvious).  Then, they decide to zap the mummy with electricity to bring it to life.  And it works!  After some slapstick hijinks at resurrection, the men give the mummy some proper clothing, then they all sit down to cigars, brandy, and civilized conversation.  Part of the satire in the plot and their discussion revolves around the hubris of modern humans in thinking their advances in scientific knowledge make them superior to past generations.

Edgar Allan Poe, “Some Words with a Mummy,” in American Review Vol. 1 No. 4, April 1845. Collection of the Rosenbach, A 845a. Credit: Kelly & Massa photography.

The humor aside, “Some Words with a Mummy” makes a few connections with Shelley’s Frankenstein: revivification of the dead, the uses of scientific knowledge and, while it is not specifically stated that Frankenstein resuscitates his creature with electricity, there are certainly hints in the story about this (and Shelley herself wrote about how electrical experiments inspired her novel).  In recounting his first impressions of his creation, Victor Frankenstein says:

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.”

What is a horror for Frankenstein, the hideousness of an animated corpse (Well, what were you expecting, Victor?), is fodder for laughs in Poe’s tale:

“I cannot say that I was alarmed at the phenomenon, because “alarmed” is, in my case, not exactly the word. It is possible, however, that, but for the Brown Stout, I might have been a little nervous. As for the rest of the company, they really made no attempt at concealing the downright fright which possessed them. Doctor Ponnonner was a man to be pitied. Mr. Gliddon, by some peculiar process, rendered himself invisible. Mr. Silk Buckingham, I fancy, will scarcely be so bold as to deny that he made his way, upon all fours, under the table.”

And yes, Poe’s humor still revolves around a revivified corpse, so just because he loved to tell a funny story, doesn’t take away his iconic macabre status.

Read one of Poe’s humor tales in honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday today (January 19).  And you can see the first publication of Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy”, in the journal American Review, in our Frankenstein & Dracula exhibition, along with the manuscript page of Shelley’s Frankenstein that mentions the creature’s mummy-like appearance.

Frankenstein & Dracula exhibition gallery, picturing pages of Mary Shelley’s manuscript under image of Frankenstein’s monster.