Monday, July 28, 2014

The Book of the Dead edited by Jared Shurin #review

Title: The Book of the Dead 
Edited by: Jared Shurin
Illustrated by: Garen Ewing
Publisher: Jurassic London, 2013

I apologise for taking so long to read this book because it’s the sort of anthology that I suspect was written specifically with someone as Egypt-obsessed as I am (so I totally rationed out the stories). When Jared Shurin puts together an anthology, it will be something special, no doubt about it. This one was something a little extra special, not only due to its star-studded cast of authors, but also the really nice touch of illustrations by the very talented Garen Ewing. And of course the subject matter.

The Book of the Dead promises and delivers an eclectic ride filled with mummies, mysteries and more (alliteration intended), and filled me with tremendous happiness. As can be expected with all projects of this nature, I liked some stories more than others, but all gathered here are masterful works in their own right, and I hope that at some point Shurin puts another anthology of this nature together.

“Ramesses on the Frontier” by Paul Cornell is a delightfully quirky excursion into the Egyptian conception of the afterlife. Instead of the expected arrival for judgment, Ramesses finds himself haunting a museum, and the journey that follows is most unconventional.

“Escape from the Mummy’s Tomb” by Jesse Bullington is a humorous yet poignant love triangle that superimposes the metaphors of classic horror cinema over contemporary London teenagers.

“Old Souls” by David Thomas Moore hits me hard – eerily similar in premise to my novel Inkarna, in which ancient Egyptian souls keep returning. Moore certainly plays with all the emotional trauma of eternal life, loss and love.

“Her Heartbeat, an Echo” by Lou Morgan tells us about the curious relationship of a night watchman and an enigmatic princess, who is part of an exhibition touring museums. This one’s absolutely sweet, sorrowful and touching.

“Mysterium Tremendum” by Molly Tanzer introduces us to Marjorie, who isn’t a bad sort, and during an era when most women will opt for marriage, she’s looking to build a career at the library where she works – and her life is about to become a great deal more interesting once she crosses paths with a mysterious stage magician whose show might be a little more authentic than expected.

“Tollund” by Adam Roberts turns my preconceptions on their heads. In a glimpse of an alternative history, Egypt and its Islamic culture has thrived while Europe remains in the dark ages. A group of Egyptian scientists travel north to uncover bog mummies… with catastrophic consequences. A lovely reversal and a big thumbs up from me.

“All is Dust” by Den Patrick tells the story of Darren Butler, who finds himself meeting up with old friends, but it’s that usual schpiel of how people have drifted apart over the years and try to force the friendship – and as can be expected of most stories in this anthology, the gathering takes a turn for the super weird.

“The Curious Case of the Werewolf that wasn’t, the Mummy that was, and the Cat in the Jar” by Gail Carriger – Mr Tarabotti, accompanied by his valet, Floate, is a rather dapper secret agent in a Victorian setting where the English have embraced the concept of the supernatural. Werewolves and vampires are real, but Tarabotti is in Egypt, ostensibly to have his aged aunt’s cat mummified… But there’s rather more to this story than meets the eye.

“The Cats of Beni-Hassan” by Jenni Hill is another delightfully creepy tale told by cats to a dog – that’s about all that needs to be said on the matter. :-) Just read the story already.

“Inner Goddess” by Michael West is the ultimate in women’s revenge stories. Elizabeth Wilson might be a downtrodden student in an abusive relationship with her professor, but with a little divine intervention, the results, though predictable, are no less satisfying. Oh, and extra Nerine points to West for tapping into one of my greatest phobias related to cling film. More than that I won’t say.

“Cerulean Memories” by Maurice Broaddus is a story about death and memories. A man is a collector of objects related to the way people died, and a young boy wanting to sell his deceased brother’s skateboard is privy to more than he bargained for. This is a poignant and evocative tale, with some lovely unsettling imagery.

“The Roof of the World” by Sarah Newton was a story that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of. It has all the hallmarks of a classic gothic horror in the vein of Frankenstein but in the end I felt that I was waiting for it to deliver a more solid punch. However, I suspect the fault may lie with the reader on this point.

“Henry” by Glen Mehn blends ancient Egyptian funerary practices with modern computer programming in a way that you’d not expect. Not quite a murder mystery, but definitely a mystery well worth the read.

“The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey” by David Bryher is another story I’m not quite sure how I feel about. There isn’t much of ancient Egypt about it save for the mummification of a particular individual, but there’s certainly enough weirdness following in a SF vein. The entire story left me with a bit of a WTF, but it was pleasing to read, nonetheless.

“Bit-U-Men” by Maria Dahvana Headley is a heady mix of literary (and literal) sweetness and obsession, and by far one of my favourites in this anthology for its sadness and magical surrealism.

“Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies (Rooms 62-3)” by Jonathan Green is a short, haunting evocative piece – essentially a vignette – as told by a faithful servant remembering his mistress.

“Akhenaten Goes to Paris” by Louis Greenberg is definitely a signature piece for the author. This story features a gleefully macabre cabal of mummies who contend with long-distance relationships in the present era, and as the name of the story suggest, Paris specifically. Louis knows how much I adore his writing, so I’m going to stop gushing. Just go read his novels. (And specifically his Darkside series that he writes with Sarah Lotz as SL Grey.)

“The Thing of Wrath” by Roger Luckhurst is a ghoulish murder mystery in the Victorian era as the narrator sets out to uncover the link between stelae depicting the ancient Egyptian deity Thoth, and peculiar deaths by strangulation.

“Three Memories of Death” by Will Hill is my clear favourite of the lot, and I can see why Jared saved this for last. I was on the verge of tears by the time I reached the end of this story in which a priest and a pharaoh discuss the nature of death and farewells, throughout the years. Beautiful and poignant, and I want to squish the author and tell him how much I need to frame this piece of writing so I can read it again when I need to.

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