Sunday, October 06, 2019

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars

Introduction

Opening Passage:

It all seemed so real that I could hardly imagine that it had ever occurred before; and yet each episode came, not as a fresh step in the logic of things, but as something expected. It is in such a wise that memory plays its pranks for good or ill; for pleasure or pain; for weal or woe. It is thus that life is bittersweet, and that which has been done becomes eternal.

Summary: Malcolm Ross, a barrister, finds himself thrust into an extraordinary mystery when Margaret Trelawney, a woman with whom he is in love, asks for his assistance after her father has been apparently assaulted. Mr. Trelawney, an Egyptologist and collector of Egyptian artifacts, is now in some sort of deeply unconscious state and has left strict legal instructions requiring that he be kept in his room and that none of the artifacts in the room be moved. Among those artifacts is a mummified cat and a mummified hand with seven fingers. The mystery deepens when it appears that Trelawney is assaulted again, and when a Mr. Corbeck, an Egyptologist colleague of Trelawney's, visits with a puzzle of his own. As time continues, an increasing amount of evidence points toward Margaret Trelawney, but the deepest level of the mystery is rooted in ancient Egypt, in a woman named Tera, Queen of the Two Egypts, who, according to legend, grew so powerful in all the arts of her day that she conquered Sleep and Will and could command the powers of all the gods by the seven words that she had carved like stars in a special ruby, and who lacked only one more thing to conquer: Death itself.

Stoker locates Tera in the Eleventh Dynasty, when Egypt was ruled out of Thebes, as a daughter of one of the Intefs (Antef, as Stoker writes it); she is a fictional queen. She seems partly based on Cleopatra, but the biggest influence on her depiction seems to be Hatshepsut, from the Eighteenth Dynasty. When Champollion and others finally began to figure out how to read hieroglyphics, Hatshepsut threw them for a considerable loop. She had been thought to be merely a royal consort, but once people learned how to read cartouches, it became clear that Hatshepsut was being given pharaonic honors. At the same time, however, the pictures and statues of her all seemed to be men, including beards, while descriptions of her were always feminine. It all culminated in the discovery of her tomb in 1903, the same year that Jewel was published. Hatshepsut, as it turns out, was one of the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history. Ruling women there had been before, but they usually ruled as King's Daughter or King's Mother. Hatshepsut, however, had made herself Pharaoh; the apparently masculine pictures and statues were in reality representing her with the symbols that had become associated with Pharaoh. She showed an extraordinary head for building trading routes, which resulted in a massive expansion of royal wealth, which in turn led to a massive expansion in construction. At some point after her death, her name was removed from a lot of buildings that she had built. This was for a long time thought to have been motivated by an attempt to erase her from history, perhaps because she was a woman; this is likely the source of the idea that Tera had incurred the enmity of the priesthood, which then attempted to erase her from history. This is still an idea one finds, but the attempts at removal were so sporadic and inconsistent, that the most common idea among Egyptologists today seems to be that later Pharaohs were in fact trying to save money by repurposing some of the many, many buildings that had been built by the wealthy Hatshepsut.

Going deeper into the mystery of Tera, Queen of the Egypts, leads the Trelawneys, Ross, Corbeck, and their physician, Doctor Winchester, to embark on the "Great Experiment": the evidence suggests that there may be something to Tera's attempt to conquer death, so can it be completed. As I noted in the Introduction, there are two versions of the novel. In the 1903 version, there is an extra chapter, "Powers -- Old & New", and the Great Experiment ends badly for those involved. In the 1912 version, the "Powers" chapter is removed, and a happier ending is substituted. Having read both, I think that the 1912 version loses nothing for losing the chapter, which consists mostly of speculations by the characters. But the happier ending is a much weaker ending, and somewhat disappointing, because we get a large build-up throughout the book that doesn't really get a proportional pay-off. It's not a bad ending; but I suppose I can express my disappointment with it by saying that it's a short-story ending tacked onto a novel. It's fine on its own, but it can't handle the weight of what came before. The 1903 version, while somewhat abrupt, is a much stronger ending.

It is inevitable in reading a horror novel by Stoker that one will compare it with Dracula, which, without detriment to Jewel is definitely the stronger work. Both novels use technique of slow build-up, and both concern the confrontation of Old Forces with New Civilization. But Dracula is a more active story; the characters do more and suffer more. Suspense-building in Jewel tends to consist of the characters waiting while not knowing what is going on. This would just be a matter of different style for a different tale, except that Jewel doesn't give us characterization to make up for it. Ross is perhaps more interesting than Jonathan Harker, but Margaret is considerably less interesting than Mina Harker (imagine Dracula if Lucy Westenra instead of Mina were the main female protagonist), and Abel Trelawney, Dr. Winchester, and Mr. Corbeck make a far less colorful supporting cast than Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and the cowboy, Quincey Morris. I think Tera herself holds up very well (she's more interesting as a character than H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha), but because of the structure of the work, we don't get her directly even in the limited amount we get Count Dracula, so she can't contribute as much.

But there's no shame in being less exciting than Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars has plenty of interest on its own, and is especially good if you have a taste for slow-building suspense and an Egyptian flavor of horror story.

Favorite Passage:

"First there is the 'Ka', or 'Double', which, as Doctor Budge explains, may be defined as 'an abstract individuality of personality' which was imbued with all the characteristic attributes of the individual it represented, and possessed an absolutely independent existence. It was free to move from place to place on earth at will; and it could enter into heaven and hold converse with the gods. Then there was the 'Ba', or 'soul', which dwelt in the 'Ka', and had the power of becoming corporeal or incorporeal at will; 'it had both substance and form. . . . It had power to leave the tomb . . .It could revisit the body in the tomb . . . and could reincarnate it and hold converse with it.' Again there was the 'Khu', the 'spiritual intelligence', or spirit. It took the form of 'a shining, luminous, intangible shape of the body.'. . . Then, again, there was the 'Sekhem', or 'power' of a man, his strength or vital force personified. These were the 'Khaibit', or 'shadow', the 'Ren', or 'name', the 'Khat', or 'physical body', and 'Ab', the 'heart', in which life was seated, went to the full making up of a man...."

Recommendation: Recommended, especially if you like your suspense to build slowly to a strong climax; the 1903 version is better for that than the later 1912 version.

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