Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Helped Invent the Curse of the Mummy

The creator of Sherlock Holmes channeled his imperialist fantasies into creating a vision of a dark and malign Egypt

The first time (and also the tenth time) I read the Hound of Baskervilles, it was in Bengali. The library at my father’s workplace in Calcutta had a wonderful little nook full of translated crime fiction and Arthur Conan Doyle—who would have celebrated his 159th birthday this week, on May 22nd—was the mainstay of that little nook. The copy of the Collected Works of Arthur Conan Doyle was so weathered, so broken-spined, that it had to be read like a medieval scroll, sometimes holding each page separately and always making sure there was always a nice, fat roll of Sellotape in case the already-yellowed Sellotape bindings and plasters needed an emergency top-up. But I was always curled up with it and continued to read and re-read The Hound of Baskervilles with vicious, unwavering concentration throughout my teens. I think in many ways it inspired me to read the world like a crime scene of language and thought — a way of seeing that eventually led me to my career as a student of literature.

Looking back, it seems peculiar that my immersion into crime fiction happened through Doyle’s work — and that it happened in Calcutta in the early 2000s, a city still recovering from its two-century-long history of colonial oppression, assimilation and resistance. Doyle himself was a staunch colonialist and believed that the sun should never set on the British empire; what would he have thought of a young brown woman enjoying his works in a post-colonial India, and not even in English? I suspect he would have been disapproving or at least confused, though perhaps he would be ecstatic thinking that the locals were finally being “educated.” Who knows what this grumpy old Victorian would have thought?

But no matter what Doyle’s colonialism would have made him think about his Indian readers, it hasn’t affected the way they think of him. Far more people in India love his work than know about his views on colonialism and empire. After all, the Sherlock Holmes series is primarily apolitical and nakedly rationalistic. Passion, and specifically passionate politics, of any kind is curiously absent. Power is these stories is always lurking behind solvable problems: princes get blackmailed, statues of Napoleon hide gems.

Doyle’s own passionate politics, and his passionate pursuits into the irrational, remain impossible to detect in the Sherlock Holmes stories and novellas. Perhaps that is why these works are so much popular than his later, more Gothic fiction, which is full of conviction and rhetoric. On the contrary, as scholar Martin Kayman perceptively points out, Sherlock Holmes was so popular with Victorian middle-class men precisely because those stories, unlike the later ones, “celebrate the capacity of rationalism to organise the material of existence meaningfully, and the power of the rational individual to protect us from semiotic and moral chaos.”

Doyle’s own passionate politics, and his passionate pursuits into the irrational, remain impossible to detect in the Sherlock Holmes stories and novellas.

And yet, in spite of this dramatic staging of rationalist cerebrality that would go on to define Arthur Conan Doyle’s career, he was a far more superstitiously-minded thinker in later years than Sherlock Holmes’ barely-hidden atheism would suggest. Perhaps more surprisingly, he was also an inveterate imperialist with a hateful obsession with Egypt, a country he visited only once in 1846 and never went back to. This lack of direct experience of Egypt or its culture never prevented Doyle from having forceful (and as it would turn out, influential) opinions on relics of ancient Egypt, which were being discovered at a higher frequency in the late 1800s thanks to the efficiency and effort of the English archaeologists. While Doyle wrote in 1896 that he found Egyptian civilization itself “contemptible” and “emasculated,” he continued to be enthralled by the mummies, pyramids, and scrolls that were being unearthed and continued to include them as props in his fiction.

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In the short story “Lot No. 249,” first published in 1894, we read the tale of Bellingham, an Oxonion who is fluent in Arabic and the ancient Oriental languages, and whose college room is “a museum rather than a study.” The most arresting thing about Bellingham is what stands right in the middle of this museum-like study of his: “a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, [that] was lying half out of the case, with its clawlike hand and bony forearm resting upon the table.” This is a classically Gothic description of a mummy, whose appearance in Doyle’s story is more reminiscent of Frankenstein’s Creature than any ancient relic. The story goes on to narrate “a lurid spark of vitality, some faint sign of consciousness in the little eyes which lurked in the depths of the [mummy’s] hollow sockets.”

This was not the only appearance of malign Egyptian artifacts in Doyle’s work. He would go on to write “The Ring of Thoth” in 1890 and publish it on The Cornhill Magazine. This was another story about an Egyptian relic — a ring that was an antidote to a poison. The story was set the Louvre in Paris. One important thing to observe here is that while Doyle continued to base his stories on ancient Egyptian relics, Egypt itself, ancient or modern, never really had an important part in these stories. Instead, it was a plucked object — a stolen, colonized, desecrated relic like a mummy or ring — that became the cause of catastrophe, which would then be resolved by English wit and effort. More importantly, in Doyle’s expert hands, Egypt was perpetually a source of maleficence, trouble, and averted crisis to a European environment like Oxford or Paris.

In Doyle’s expert hands, Egypt was perpetually a source of maleficence, trouble, and averted crisis to a European environment.

Doyle’s only work of fiction (that I know of) in which Egypt plays a part as a living environment and space is The Tragedy of the Korosko, written in 1898. In the story, a group of European and American tourists visiting the sacred places by the Nile are kidnapped by ruthless Sudanese rebels in the desert. As critic Roger Lackhurst points out in his book The Mummy’s Curse, the publication of this short story coincided with period when British Army general Herbert Kitchener “was finally given leave to advance into the Sudan, destroying the last stand of the Mahdist forces at the Battle of Omdurman with overwhelming force, massacring twenty thousand men and executing the wounded in the wake of the battle” (Lackhurst, 158). And yet, Doyle’s preoccupation in this story is solely Sudanese extremism, cruelty, and misogyny, while not a word is said of the equally terrorizing force of the British Egyptian army.

The context of this particular story goes on to show more than anything else that Doyle’s contributions to the Victorian Gothic revival (1850–1900) coincided with what historian Eric Hobsbawm has called “the era of a new type of empire.” Specifically, he began the trend of depictions of Egypt in the genre that has come to be known as Imperial Gothic in England. This was a trend whose main characteristic was the portrayal of England’s empire as a place of extra-rational evil and supernaturality which could only be vanquished by the agency of anglophone, white, English ingenuity. The historical trajectory of these years makes Doyle’s stance stand out even more. In 1882, Egypt lost its position as khedive allied to the Ottoman empire and found itself occupied by British forces. It would remain under this occupation until the Suez crisis in the mid-twentieth century. (This is also the shape of the history of India, which the British governed even more forcefully after the failed Revolt of 1857. It would continue as a British colony under 1947.) In 1885, not just England, but most of Europe convened to cut up the territories of the African continently into manageable handouts during the Berlin Conference. More than ever, the idea of empire was a practice, a victory, and a way of life.

This was a trend whose main characteristic was the portrayal of England’s empire as a place of extra-rational evil and supernaturality which could only be vanquished by the agency of anglophone, white, English ingenuity.

Even so, there were times when Doyle’s sense of entitlement over Egypt faltered. The most famous moment was after the mysterious death of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who funded and supervised the excavation of King Tutenkhamun’s tomb in the winter of 1922–23. A few days after the end of the excavation, Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito in the Hotel Savoy where he was staying in Cairo. The wound got infected while shaving and he ended up contracting a fatal blood infection and dying before he could be carried to England for treatment. He died on the fifth of April, 1923.

The next day, Sir Doyle reached American shores where he was lecturing on spirituality. By this point a practicing occultist, he was asked by journalists of The Express what he made of the mysterious death, and he answered that “An evil elemental may have caused Lord Carnarvon’s fatal illness.” Meanwhile The Morning Post reported that Doyle believed “it was dangerous for Lord Carnarvon to enter Tutankhamun’s tomb, owing to occult and other spiritual influences.” Along with prominent spiritualist Madam Blavatsky, he was one of Victorian occultist voices that gave rise to the curse of the mummy — today a well-known Orientalizing trope in film and fiction.

He was one of Victorian occultist voices that gave rise to the curse of the mummy — today a well-known Orientalizing trope in film and fiction.

Somehow, though, Doyle’s afterlife as a writer and thinker has evaded his connection to Egypt and Egyptian gothic. Today we know him mainly as the creator of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson — the great detectives of Baker Street in London (and also New York, if you are a fan of the adaptation Elementary, as I am). But Arthur Conan Doyle was many things — a trained surgeon, a writer of crime fiction, a prolific writer of the Gothic, an imperialist, and one of the fathers of the mummy’s curse.

On his birthday, I would like us to remember this strange man — his rationalism and his spiritualism, his colonialism and his Orientalist fixations, and all his many contradictions — and remind ourselves that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is plenty more than just Sherlock Holmes. Though the man himself never quite overcame his imperialist convictions, his creation — as his many Indian fans can attest — transcended its author.

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