The following article is by Robert M. Price.
Ancient Egypt, its culture and its mythology have long fascinated modern Westerners. One might even say Egypt, as clothed in legendary modern as well as ancient, is of the essence of exotic Orientalism. Thus it is no surprise to see things Egyptian utilized in much weird fiction. But the match that seems to have lit the fuse for modern horror fictions involving the elder mysteries of Egypt was Howard Carter’s 1922 excavation of the tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amun. Within a few short years, several of the members of the expedition (though only some eight out of over fifty involved) died in this way or that. Carter was not among them, but lived to the ripe old age of 64. Nonetheless, popular imagination soon credited the deaths to a curse allegedly inscribed on the lintel of the tomb, promising death to foolish interlopers. Though archaeology has in fact unearthed several such imprecatory warnings, none was found in Tut’s tomb. But the urban legend fired the creative imagination of fiction writers, including John L. Balderson who wrote the screenplay for the great 1932 Karloff film, The Mummy. Originally the movie was to have been based on a story (by Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam) of the age-abiding Cagliostro (Karloff’s intended role), but the movie became the tale of a resurrected mummy at the hands of Balderson. Basically, he made it into a hieroglyphic paraphrase of the previous Universal Pictures film Dracula—even with two of the same actors repeating their earlier roles, though with different names. I believe it must have been the Universal Mummy that inspired Robert Bloch’s wonderful canon of Egyptian stories appearing in Weird Tales in 1936-1938. Of course, the use of Egyptian lore, real or fictive, would not be sufficient to prove this, but I call attention to Bloch’s throw-away reference in “The Secret of Sebek” to the narrator’s “favorite number – the superb and sonorously sepulchral Number One scene from The Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.” The Mummy opens with music from Swan Lake, too, less of a coincidence than the deaths following the opening of Tut’s tomb.
The narrator of “The Secret of Sebek” is plainly modeled upon Bloch himself. He is an author of weird fiction and even mentions his current project of writing a series of Egyptian-themed stories! Inevitably and quite properly, some of the stories do feature mummies, but Bloch avoided simply redoing the premise of the Karloff film. One can even notice the lingering influence of the mummification theme on Bloch much further along in his career, in Norman Bates preserving his mother’s corpse with taxidermy. (Is there an implied pun here between “mummy” and “mommy”?)
How accurately do Bloch’s Egyptian fictions mirror the actual lore upon which they draw? He makes an evil triad of the gods Sebek, Anubis, and Bubastis (“The Fane of the Black Pharaoh”). Who were they? Bloch’s versions received plentiful human sacrifices, but historically it seems they did not. It would be ludicrous to think of such liberties as “errors.” No one reading Weird Tales thought he was reading a history book (despite the credulity of some who believed in the Necronomicon as a real book). Bloch depicts the crocodile (sometimes croc-headed) deity Sebek as a god of life and resurrection. The association is plausible, as Sebek, a Nilotic crocodile, might naturally be thought of as symbolizing the annual flooding of the Nile, which renewed the vegetation of Egypt. But that was more the bailiwick of the risen Osiris. Nonetheless, Sebek was eventually associated with his myth, too. Sebek was the one who found the body of the slain Osiris for Isis to resurrect. Sebek was the patron deity of burials, not really of resurrection, but Bloch gets close to this when he says Sebek guaranteed the sanctity of the mummies of his priests until the day of Resurrection (though Bloch seems to envision this more in terms of Jewish and Christian eschatology than Egyptian. The mummies and the possessions of the departed served as earthly anchors for a continued life in the afterworld).
Bloch presents Sebek as having a sweet tooth for virgins, who were chewed up (crushed?) by the clamping jaws of a metal crocodile effigy. Again, we know of no such bloody worship, but Sebek was believed to be enormously sexually potent, which probably originated as Vladimir Putin-like propaganda for the virility of the Pharaoh who was then believed to be Sebek’s earthly incarnation. Bloch does refer to earthly incarnations of Sebek: the god could appear in the form of one of his priests, which he does at the end of “The Secret of Sebek.” The narrator first thinks the figure is wearing a reptilian mask, but then he discovers it is actual flesh (inevitably bringing to mind another, later monster movie, The Alligator People (1959). Bloch has these crocodile-men avatars show up from time to time inside Sebek’s temple; well, there were living crocs kept in the temples, and these were indeed believed to be incarnations of Sebek.
Bubastis (Herodotus’ version of the name, elsewhere used only of the city dedicated to her) was also called Bast (later, Bastet) and Ubasti, as in Seabury Quinn’s tale of Jules de Grandin, “The Children of Ubasti” (1929). She began as a warrior goddess with the head of a fierce lioness. But there was an exactly analogous goddess called Sekhmet, borrowed from a neighboring pantheon. Usually when pantheons were assimilated, deities so similar were just identified with one another, but for some reason these two remained separate. By way of distinguishing them, Bast was eventually rebranded as a cat-headed goddess, the patroness of earthly housecats, held in high esteem in ancient Egypt, rather like cows in India. She did not receive human sacrifices either.
Of Anubis Bloch tells us little, and nothing lying outside the theology of ancient Egyptian religion. The jackal-headed god was the Opener of the Way to Karneter, the world of the dead. He is also its guardian or “watchdog,” recalling the similarly canine Cerberus of Greek myth.
Bloch does not explain why the bloodthirsty character of these gods is not hinted at in conventional historical sources. But he does give us two big hints. First, he credits most of these revelations to such unknown or discredited sources as The Book of Eibon, the Necronomicon, and especially Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the chapter called “Saracenic Rituals.” This means that conventional accounts of ancient Egyptian myth and worship (already in Plutarch, Herodotus, etc.) are based on the sanitized version passed down by the priesthoods of these gods.
Second, Bloch tells us that, though the priests of Sebek, Bubastis, and Nyarlathotep possessed such great power, both occult and political, that they ruled behind the throne, the atrocities they inflicted on the populace (conscripting too many sacrifices) finally provoked backlash and revolution. The priests who survived the purge took refuge in far-flung places where they reestablished their death cults in secret, to be carried on by their descendants, even to our day (or at least Bloch’s). Bloch reiterates Lovecraft’s notice (in “The Haunter of the Dark”) that those who turned out the Black Pharaoh Nephren-Ka also eradicated any and all mentions of him, his name, his crimes. (This attempt to efface all traces of a suppressed heresy is surely based on the backlash against Tut-Ankh-Amun’s father Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who outlawed all worship of Egyptian gods except that of his own divine patron Aten, the solar disc.) Alhazred and Prinn knew the truth not from any human source, but from the cachinnating jinn of the desert.
So at least in the cases of Bubastis and Sebek, their cults and myths were purified and retained in bowdlerized form. That of Nyarlathotep, Black Messenger of Karneter, the Faceless God, was expunged altogether. Why not those of Sebek and Bubastis? Because, in “The Fane of the Black Pharaoh,” we learn that the depraved elements were not native to the worship of the familiar gods of Egypt. No, certain priests, worshipping Nyarlathotep, “for a time transformed the recognized religion into a dark and terrible thing… a bloody shambles.” In “The Opener of the Way,” Sir Ronald Barton (whose name recalls that of the adventurer/discoverer Sir Richard Burton) speaks of “gods far older than those [the priests] worshipped,” especially a single entity, “the Demon Messenger,” identified in “The Faceless God” as “Nyarlathotep… the oldest god of all Egypt.” In “The Opener of the Way,” he is depicted as an amorphous blob with branching stalks sporting the heads of “Osiris, Isis, Ra, Bast, Thoth, Set, and Anubis.” This statue was “somehow symbolic of a secret horror which rules behind all human gods,” a god central to “the secret myth and legend-cycles of pre-Adamite days.” Here we see a clear parallel to Lovecraft’s notion that familiar myths and legends preserve but scraps of far more ancient, sinister entities, the Old Ones, as well as Robert E. Howard’s contrast between mysterious Stygia (the Hyborian Egypt) and the even more archaic and more sinister Acheron (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935). In all cases, there are mad cults or delvers who seek to summon the horrors of the remote past into the present, “a renascence of primal gods again” (”The Opener of the Way.”).
Bloch employs a common structure in several of these stories. In “The Opener of the Way” (Weird Tales October, 1936), “The Brood of Bubastis” (WT March 1937), “The Secret of Sebek” (WT November 1937), “The Fane of the Black Pharaoh” (WT December 1937), and “The Eyes of the Mummy” (WT April 1938), a direct sequel to “The Secret of Sebek,” we find the protagonist (sometimes the narrator himself) being led along by some mysterious figure who lures him with promises of esoteric knowledge. In the first of these tales, Sir Ronald Barton leads his son Peter into the newly unearthed vault of Anubis, there to invoke the revelations of that god. In the second, the narrator’s old college chum, Malcolm Kent, invites him to follow him down a mineshaft leading into a secret temple of Bubastis, where the goddess lingers in the form of a giant cat (much like the feline form of the alien sorceress in Bloch’s Star Trek episode “Catspaw,” October 27, 1967). While in “The Opener of the Way,” we are led to expect that Sir Ronald plans to his son as a sacrifice (as Abraham thought to sacrifice Isaac), though he doesn’t, Malcolm, in “The Brood of Bubastis,” does intend to offer the narrator as a meal for Bubastis whom he has come to worship. Of course, as he is the narrator, he manages to escape (though Malcolm wound up in a can of Nine Lives). In “The Secret of Sebek” the narrator is wandering the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras when he happens upon a fan of his work, a wealthy occultist dilettante named Henricus Vanning. Vanning invites him to a party at his mansion, then to a meeting of an inner circle who request his help in a ritual to be practiced over a mummified priest of Sebek. The funerary god does not take kindly to this, but the narrator escapes his wrath. In the sequel, the narrator is suckered by another survivor into violating another tomb, with more disastrous results. “The Fane of the Black Pharaoh” sees one Captain Carteret (recalling archaeologist Howard Carter of King Tut fame) getting led by the nose by a modern acolyte of Nephren-Ka who offers to admit him to the eponymous crypt of the Black Pharaoh, where the whole future of Egypt is set forth in hieroglyphs along the walls. Big mistake, as he beholds there the depiction of his own death, which at once ensues. Archie Goodwin borrowed the same idea for his story “Collector’s Edition” (illustrated by Steve Ditko, Creepy # 10).
Why this repetition? A lack of imagination on Bloch’s part? Not likely. No, the recurrence of the narrative structure symbolizes the central theme of mystagogy, the process of initiation of a novice into the secrets of the ancient Mystery Cults of Mithras, Isis and Osiris, and Eleusis. Just as the seeker would be led through successive stages of ritual catechism and enlightenment, so do Bloch’s characters play the roles of initiate and initiator. Lovecraft’s stories share the element of the revelation of secret and dangerous knowledge, but HPL’s approach is more Faustian, a doomed protagonist not knowing when to quit, zeroing in on the candle light like a heedless moth. Bloch’s narrators and protagonists are invited along by others, a Gnostic theme, like Neo being seduced by Morpheus into swallowing the red pill.
“The Faceless God” does not follow the pattern, but there is something analogous to it. The villainous Dr. Carnoti (recalling Howard Carter’s associate Lord Carnavon, who died of blood poisoning not long after the opening of Tut’s tomb) is not invited to share a revelation by somebody else. He tortures the location of the Sphinx of Nyarlathotep out of a native Egyptian. Though Bloch does not make it explicit, one might see this bloody murder as an unwitting sacrifice to the god whose effigy Carnoti is about to encounter, like those offered by the ancient cultists who thus petitioned his favors. Not an initiation, then, but a different rite.
“Beetles” (WT December 1938) sticks closer to the general pattern with the small difference that the narrator decides to seek out the initiator figure, archaeologist Arthur Hartley, after hearing from mutual friends about Hartley’s return from a dig in the Egyptian Sudan and his subsequent self-imposed seclusion. These concerned friends never actually suggest that the narrator seek out Hartley, but their concern nonetheless prompts his visit. Thus they share between them the actantial role embodied in a single character in the other Egyptian tales. Once the narrator arrives at Hartley’s apartment, we have a scene right out of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” with a shaken and paranoid Hartley assuming the role of (the pseudo-) Akeley sitting in the shadows of his farmhouse parlor and initiating his pen pal Albert Wilmarth into mysteries Akeley now wishes he had never learned. Indeed, Bloch’s scene appears to be a direct homage to Lovecraft’s: “Oh, I know all the myths – the Bubastis legend, the Isis resurrection story [she raised Osiris from the dead], the true names of Ra, the allegory of Set.” This last item in particular must be a nod to Akeley’s disclosure of “the allegory of Yig,” another mythical serpent god.
The horrific climax of the story, in which the freaked-out narrator discovers the hollowed-out carcass of Hartley, reminds us of Lovecraft’s final revelation, where the fleeing Wilmarth examines the chair in which Akeley had been sitting and finds there only “the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley.” But Bloch goes one more step: Hartley’s innards have been eaten away by the scarabaeid beetles which now flood out through his sagging lips, their ghoulish work complete. And from here on in, it is Bloch’s story from which the baleful imagery stems. Stephen King’s story, “They’re Creeping up on You” (in the 1982 anthology movie Creepshow) is virtually a cinematic adaptation of Bloch’s “Beetles,” and the same disgusting gimmick appears again in the X-Files episode “Brand X” (April 16, 2000; written by Steven Maeda and Greg Walker).
All of Robert Bloch’s Egyptian stories are cautionary tales, as if warning the reader not to tamper with the secrets of the buried past, much like Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. But this is just a trope, a trick providing narrative motivation for the story’s revelation of horrors invited by cat-killing curiosity. If such stories were seriously meant as cautionary tales, the point would be to discourage archaeological expeditions, which of course neither Bloch nor Lovecraft remotely dreamed of doing. We could, however, make a case that Bloch’s portrayals of professional psychiatrists and psychologists are something like real cautionary tales, since Bloch considered these people often no better than shamans and charlatans. The most scathing of these portrayals must be his novel Psycho II. But nothing like that is evident in his Egyptian tales.
One final note. It is common to see this or that critic characterizing the Weird Tales work of Robert Bloch, notably including his Lovecraftian and Egyptian stories, as his “early work,” strictly speaking true but implying something like “promising juvenilia.” Damning with faint praise, in other words. With this patronizing judgment I find myself in the heartiest disagreement. Certainly the author of Psycho went on to conquer other worlds, and that is all to the good, but I believe these pulp stories already show a writer working at full power.
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007),Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul(2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.