Mummy Knows Best anthology edited by Theresa Derwin (book review).

‘Mummy Knows Best’ is an anthology of short stories edited by Theresa Derwin, late in 2017. As is reasonably obvious from the title and the cover, these stories focus on a wide variety of mummification tales. Coming from the Terror Tree label, this reviewer expected a good dose of blood-curdling horror but the contents actually took me by surprise. There is more to this than the obvious and tired clichés. It is true that you can find tales of traditional Egyptian mummies but also more esoteric tales of Peruvian, Japanese and British mummies rising direct from the prehistoric peat bogs…

Ms. Derwin gives us a short and sweet introduction which makes it clear that mummies are close to her imagination as well as she has studied 19th century museum culture. And then we get to dive straight into ‘Three Dead Men’ by Calvin Demmer. Alas, this opening tale of a modern Japanese researcher of Egyptian mummies and an unfortunate case of reanimation feels rather pedestrian. While modern urban horror is a fine setting, this story loses the eldritch feel by devolving into a rather standard young-lady-kicks-ass-with-katana tale. Oh well.

This juxtaposition of tropes rather characterises the whole volume. Any reader expecting straight historical or modern horror may be surprised to find that, on the whole, this volume has more fantasy than horror. This is perhaps to the book’s strength as the horror is a bit hit-and-miss but the fantasy is often strong.

After the first tale, we are presented with what are probably the best or the most memorable stories. ‘The Huntress Animate’ by Kev Harrison is an evocative tale of a savage woman reawakened after centuries (millennia?) spent naturally mummified in a British peat bog. The archaeologists who discovered her can’t work out why she is attacking them. They do not realise that the mummified child found with her is a relation. The description of the huntress’ motivation really coloured her emotional link to the child mummy.

Pauline E. Dungate gives us ‘Chan Chan’, which is a modern take on the traditional race against time to prevent the Peruvian mummy from awakening! The intrepid adventurers in this case are dynamic Hunter and the quite literally feline, Phoebe, who shape-shifts into a tiger. This reviewer is given to understand that this is the third of Dungate’s tales featuring this daring duo and that accounts for the scant background introduction to the characters. Without the benefit of having read the previous stories, this yarn comes across rather lightly much in the manner of genre fiction. However aficionados of Hunter and Phoebe’s earlier adventures will surely appreciate a further outing.

‘The Phoenix Pharaoh’ by Candice Gleave is possibly my favourite in this collection, basically because it feels very original next to the others. This is a tale of an Egyptian mummy told from the other end. Basically, an ambitious Egyptian king decides to ascend to godhead by being mummified with disastrous consequences…

There are one or two oddities in the book that stand out. ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ by E.F. Schraeder introduces the idea of resurrecting great rock acts from the past. It is told in a very atmospheric way that neatly combines the seedier feel of backstage rock antics with the creepy feeling of the undead. The other unholy fly in the embalming fluid is ‘M.I.L.F.’ by Anthony D. Redden. This is the one story in the volume that I would hold to be truly horrific and not just because of the apposite title.

Beyond these, I’m afraid lie the lesser works that for one reason or other I simply do not find very memorable. ‘Bloodline’ by Kyle Turton tries for personal horror as the protagonist slowly succumbs to an ancient curse. ‘A Shade Of Brown’ by G.H. Finn searches for a more sinister feeling and feels vaguely reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft (I am probably thinking of ‘Pickman’s Model’) but lacks the wyrd thing-that-should-not-be angle. ‘Ferreau’s Curse’ by Christine Morgan crosses the reanimated dead with the workings of an organised crime family. The problem here is that it is hard to actually empathise with any of the characters who meet a grisly end, so where is the horror?

D.J. Tyrer contributes ‘Crusader’ which gives us a resurrected knight. More fantasy than horror and a bit average overall. P.L. McMillan gives us ‘Mistress Edge’s House Of Horrors’ which is a kind of gothic haunted house horror for the modern urban. To be honest, in this tale I suspect the author and many readers are more likely to sympathise with the mistress and not the protagonists, who are rather shallow. That would certainly be more fun. Rhys Hughes’ ‘Nile By Mouth’ is the comedy relief story. Fair enough. ‘Pickled In Peat’ by Lynn M. Cochrane goes for the rather odd angle of the undead taking over the world by taking over our computers. ‘And Aleiodes’ by Carl Barker delivers some body horror linked to this collection by the rather tenuous vector of the name of a specific kind of wasp. Ken Shinn’s ‘And Only The Wounded Remain…’ is a passable story of a Russian squad executed during World War II and resurrected in modern times to restore the greatness of Russia.

It is fair to say that this volume represents value for money. The stand-out tales make it worthwhile especially for fans of any of the authors. Talking of the authors, why do so many use initials these days? J.K. Rowling had her reasons but surely these writers are not that timid. OK. I know one of them uses a pseudonym, but I am not evil enough yet to reveal whom. However, I believe I have perceived another slightly less ludicrous trend. In all of these stories, the more effective protagonists are all women.

I am fine by strong female characters, but the men in these stories are for the most part evil, incompetent and or just a bit useless. The only strong male characters are in stories that don’t feature women at all. Now I realise that greater part of horror fandom and authors for that matter are female and prospective fiction of the past has not always been strong on female characters but I await the maturing of this movement so that a more balanced approach can be found. Is it too much to ask for both genders to be represented by strong characters at the same time?

Maybe this is just a personal peeve (oooh look, an old white male SF fan can’t tolerate women!) so maybe it should be taken with a pinch of salt. I should add that I do support Ms. Derwin’s championing of female authors as readers of my previous reviews might find obvious.

In this collection, Ms. Derwin’s enthusiasm for the topic shines through in her varied choice of stories and I did enjoy the contributions mentioned above. But, overall, I suspect this is the kind of volume that a horror fan is best recommended to dip into for occasional entertainment more than a page-tuner. I guess it wears its heart on its cover, so judge it by that and you may enjoy it, you know who you are…

David Corby

March 2018

(pub: Quantum Corsets, 2018. 260 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-97755-939-5)


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