31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 7: “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott

From Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852–1923

The 19th century American writer Louisa May Alcott, a resident of Concord, Massachusetts, is best known as a children’s author, most particularly the novel Little Women (1868–1869). First published in two volumes, Alcott wrote the autobiographical story as a means of generating income for her family. The narrative follows the lives of the New England March clan, specifically the daughters who grow up to pursue various paths and vocations (including Jo, the Alcott manqué, who becomes a writer). The book enjoyed immediate popular success upon its publication and has been a canonical text of North American children’s literature ever since. It has spawned three noted film adaptations, including George Cuckor’s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, and Greta Gerwig’s 2019 remake starring Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep.

About Alcott’s novel, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Little Women created a realistic but wholesome picture of family life with which younger readers could easily identify. In 1869 Alcott was able to write in her journal: ‘Paid up all the debts … thank the Lord!’ ”

Less well known was Alcott’s penchant for writing horror stories – what she called tales of “blood and thunder.” These, it would seem, were actually her preferred milieu. Writing on the website Crime Reads, Stephanie Sylverne quotes Alcott bemoaning the “moral pap for the young” she was forced into writing as a way of earning some quick money. Her predilection for “the lurid style” was so intense, write Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger, editors of the anthology Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852–1923, that she wrote one volume, A Long Fatal Love Chase, that contemporary editors refused to publish on the grounds that it was “too sensational.” The novel was published posthumously in 1994.

Sylvestre quotes Alcott about her dubious affinity for the Gothic mode:

I indulge in gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public. How should I dare interfere with the proper grayness of Old Concord? The dear old town has never known a startling hue since the redcoats were there. Far be it from me to inject an inharmonious color into the natural tint. And what would my own father think of me?

Regardless of any hesitations arising out of a sense of propriety as a Victorian-era American lady, Alcott continued to produce works of horror and suspense, often publishing them under a pseudonym. “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse” first appeared in 1869 (ironically, the same year as the second volume of Little Women) under the initials L.M.A. The nom de plume is understandable, as Alcott was already famous for her upright family story, and the short tale of terror is anything but recondite.

“Lost in a Pyramid” follows a fairly conventional plot: Paul Forsyth, an explorer and adventurer, tells his adolescent cousin Evelyn an audacious tale of Egyptian archaeology and grave robbery in response to a question about the provenance of some strange seeds he has in his possession. It turns out he uncovered the seeds in the course of exploring an ancient pyramid with an academic, Professor Niles, and a guide named Jumal. The two anglophones get lost in the cavernous interior, eventually stumbling upon the sarcophagus of an Egyptian sorceress. Hoping to create a trail of smoke to alert Jumal to their whereabouts, they burn whatever is at hand, including the mummified corpse. Their scheme works and they are reunited with their guide, who ushers them out of the pyramid, but not before Forsyth purloins the seeds that had been interred alongside the mummy.

Anyone familiar with this strain of horror story knows that there is always a price to be paid for disturbing the rest of the dead – especially when the departed was, in life, an Egyptian practitioner of the dark arts. Though Forsyth counsels Evelyn to destroy the seeds, and in fact casts them into the fire, a few fall unnoticed to the floor. These the young lady cultivates to great dismay following her eventual marriage to Forsyth. (One convention of Victorian fiction, from Austen to the Brontës and elsewhere, is the ubiquity of cousins marrying, a situation that appears highly odd from a 21st century perspective.)

“Lost in a Pyramid” is not a mummy story on the order of the Boris Karloff/Universal Pictures movies of the 1930s. Nowhere in the tale does a reader find a reanimated corpse that returns to life to seek revenge on those who have wronged it. By contrast, the immolation of the mummified remains and the theft of her property set in motion the curse that will eventually claim the lives of two of the three central characters in the narrative. (No spoilers here: anyone familiar with the trajectory of this sort of tale knows where it’s going; the enjoyment is in discovering how it gets there.)

The critique of a rapacious colonial mentality that sees no problem in pillaging a sacred site in a foreign land is certainly recognizable from any number of similar tales; what is new in Alcott’s rendering is the potent strain of feminism that adheres to her story. It is not incidental that the mummy the two men burn is female; the desecration of her remains brings down suffering on all those involved, not least the two patriarchal tomb raiders who are responsible for removing the cursed seeds in the first place.

That Evelyn also perishes as a result of the men’s hubris is no fault of her own; she is innocent of the true nature of the seeds that are brought to her attention by Forsyth, who is all too eager to regale her with his thrilling tale. This notwithstanding an initial hesitation at thinking his cousin too delicate for the frightful details of the excursion. “Tell on, I’m not afraid of these pretty atoms,” she says indignantly when confronted with Forsyth’s reticence.

This resilience, along with her ultimate fate at the hands of a careless and unscrupulous male partner, is also a feminist gesture from the author who herself enjoyed indulging in tales of adventure and terror, whether or not she needed to disguise their authorship to preserve the Victorian probity of her more family-friendly bestselling fiction.

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 7: “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott