Little Women and the mummy’s curse

At the same time she was writing the novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott also wrote one of the first stories to feature an Egyptian mummy’s curse.

Louisa May Alcott
George Kendall Warren (d. 1884); restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today Louisa May Alcott is best known for the classic and serious coming-of-age novel Little Women, but in order to pay the bills she also wrote lurid thrillers under the pen name A. M. Barnard or just under the initials L. M. A. One such sensationalist short story, “Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse,” was one of the very first stories to feature the now common trope of the Mummy’s curse.

This is how the story goes: two American explorers in Egypt and their local guide penetrate the Great Pyramid of Giza. The explorers get separated from their guide in the depths of the pyramid, and decide to light a fire so he can find and rescue them. What’s flammable in a pyramid?

Those explorers end up burning a mummy’s coffin, of course:

“A fire without wood?” I began; but he pointed to a shelf behind me, which had escaped me in the gloom; and on it I saw a slender mummy-case. I understood him, for these dry cases, which lie about in hundreds, are freely used as firewood. Reaching up, I pulled it down, believing it to be empty, but as it fell, it burst open, and out rolled a mummy. Accustomed as I was to such sights, it startled me a little, for danger had unstrung my nerves. Laying the little brown chrysalis aside, I smashed the case, lit the pile with my torch, and soon a light cloud of smoke drifted down the three passages which diverged from the cell-like place where we had paused.

Lost in a Pyramid

As if that weren’t bad enough, one of the explorers decides that he’d really like to unwrap the poor mummy too. Inside they find a mysterious golden box and a parchment:

“Come and help me unroll this. I have always longed to be the first to see and secure the curious treasures put away among the folds of these uncanny winding-sheets. This is a woman, and we may find something rare and precious here,” he said, beginning to unfold the outer coverings, from which a strange aromatic odor came.

Lost in a Pyramid

Inside they find a mysterious golden box clasped in the hands of the mummy, and a parchment proclaiming a curse on any who should disturb her rest. They keep the box and, desperate for more fuel, burn the mummy itself. Both of these acts, as it turns out, are a big mistake.

Back home, one of the explorers shows the box and its contents – some mysterious red seeds – to his fiancĂ©e. Fearing the curse, he destroys the seeds. But two survive: one he knows about and sends to the other explorer, the other he does not know about and is planted by his bride-to-be. The seeds grow into a suspicious white flower.

As the wedding approaches, she falls sick. On the day of the happy occasion, the explorer receives a letter warning that the other explorer died two days previous, poisoned by a mysterious flower which drained his life away. And the same flower adorns the bride…

Drawn and pallid, as if with some wasting malady, the young face, so lovely an hour ago, lay before him aged and blighted by the baleful influence of the plant which had drunk up her life. No recognition in the eyes, no word upon the lips, no motion of the hand – only the faint breath, the fluttering pulse, and wide-opened eyes, betrayed that she was alive.

Lost in a Pyramid

The story was published in 1869 and did not have much of an impact – it only resurfaced in the late 1990s and was added to the now long literary tradition of the mummy’s curse.

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