Being the horror aficionado that I am, and having read so much horror literature in my life (good and bad), I feel pretty comfortable in my own literary criticism and analysis of the horror genre. Any horror writer worth his or her salt is going to prove their worth when they take on the typical tropes of horror literature – ghosts, vampires, demons and demonic possession, haunted houses, zombies, mummies, reanimated corpses, witches – and create a literary universe that is both uniquely theirs and that is excellently written. Of the many horror authors who have successfully taken on these tropes, such as my main man Stephen King, Paul Tremblay, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne Du Maurier, Grady Hendrix and Jason Arnopp – to name only a few – my absolute favorite is Anne Rice.
Rice famously brought vampires back into vogue in the late 70s with the publication of Interview with the Vampire, and went on to create the witchy world of the Mayfair family in The Witching Hour, and a whole slew of other supernatural, gothic and sensual novels that take various aspects of horror and turn them into unique literary works of art. As much as I love her vampire and witch novels, to me, The Mummy or Ramses the Damned, is probably my favorite of all her works and it’s not just because it’s an excellent retooling of the classic mummy trope, it’s also because her reanimated Ramses is not a spirit, not a witch, not a bloodsucking fiend. He’s a man with all of the loves, dislikes, and appetites of a man – just magnified a thousandfold.
This book starts off in Cairo around 1912 and archaeologist Lawrence Stratford has just unearthed the puzzlingly out-of-time-and-place tomb and well-preserved mummy of Ramses the Great, who supposedly died and was entombed 3,000 years before. Yet this tomb shows that this particular mummy was laid to rest during the final days of the Egyptian empire, when Cleopatra famously lost her kingdom to Octavius Caesar and committed suicide with the bite of a poisonous asp. Lawrence mysteriously dies in the tomb and the mummy is shipped back to London, where Lawrence’s daughter Julie mourns her father and oversees the mummy’s tomb as part of her father’s last wishes. The sunshine on the mummy causes it to come to life and lo and behold, Ramses the Great, or Ramses the Damned as his tomb is inscribed, is again part of the world roughly 2,000 years after his latest entombment.
Ramses is a character that you can fall madly in love with. He is immortal, yes, having taken the elixir of life from a Hittite priestess during his first reign (1,000 years before that of Cleopatra) but he is ultimately a man, with the loves, dislikes, feelings, desires and appetites of any mortal man. He is fascinated by the 20th century, so very different from the ancient world he remembers. His immortality has enabled him to learn at an amazingly rapid rate so he is speaking modern English in no time at all, becomes very much a man of the Edwardian era as he adopts the pseudonym Reginald Ramsey, and Julie falls head over heels in love with him. He persuades Julie, Julie’s soon-to-be ex fiance Alex, and Alex’s father Elliott, to accompany him back to Cairo so he can see how his empire has modernized. But wait!
While in a dusty museum in Cairo, he finds the mummified body of his great love Cleopatra, whom history famously records as having died by the bite of an asp (and don’t get me started on the Christian symbolism of the snake here!) to escape the clutches of Octavius Caesar but whose tomb was never discovered. Ramses, in a moment of madness, gives some of the elixir of life to Cleopatra’s mummified corpse and she returns to life, but damaged both in mind and soul, as well as body. She escapes Ramses and proceeds to go on a murderous spree throughout Cairo, takes up with Julie’s ex-fiance Alex and shares her plans to create an army of immortal warriors who will help her take over the world. Ramses, of course, is like “hell no, lady!” And the chase is on!
As rollickingly fun a read as this book is, it is also incredibly well written. Rice is a wonderful storyteller and this book still has that early Anne Rice feeling to it, with lots of intense sexuality interwoven with philosophical meanderings, exotic locations, and an overall feeling of grandeur and elegance. This would have made a wonderful movie, in my opinion, harking back to those glamorous black-and-white films of early Hollywood days, and in fact, the movie The English Patient, has that similar vibe, when they are all in North Africa at their elegant hotel but then go exploring the massive desert. This book brings that feeling and sense of mystery, adventure and elegance and for me, it was a purely sensuous joy to read.
Ramses, as I said before, is a man of great appetites. He devours platefuls of food, smokes numerous cigars, drinks boatloads of beer, brandy and wine, and needs no sleep whatsoever. His sexual appetite is the same, at one point taking him to an Egyptian brothel where he beds all twelve of the prostitutes in an afternoon and leaves them begging for more. When he and Julie finally consummate their love, and in flashbacks to his affair with Cleopatra, his lovemaking is tireless. I can honestly say, hand over heart, that I would become immortal to be with such a man ANY DAY!
Ahem. Anyway, being set in late Colonial Egypt, there are many mentions of very exotic sounding foods, and of course Ramses being who he is, he devours everything in sight. In one funny scene, Julie’s fiance Alex, cluelessly unsuspecting of Ramses’ true nature, needles him as Ramses is continually amazed by the “native Egyptian” food, teasing Ramses that it can’t be “native food” since Ramses himself is supposedly a native Egyptian.
“Ah, Julie,” Ramses said, “These native dishes are simply delicious.” He was gaily helping himself to shish kebab and grape leaves and spiced dishes for which she didn’t know the names, fingers moving as always with great delicacy an deliberation. “Wait a minute,” Alex said, “You mean, you’ve never had this food before?” “Well, no, in that crazy pink hotel we ate meat and potatoes if memory serves me right,” Ramses said…..”But wait a minute,” Alex said. “Are you not a native Egyptian?”
Stuffed grape leaves are an integral part of cuisine from the Mediterranean to the Middle East to North Africa and beyond. In fact, Cleopatra herself was of Greek descent, something I learned when I first read this book, and so it makes sense that a dish long associated with Greek cuisine also has an Egyptian counterpart, called mahshi warak enab – , or grape vine paper. Here is my version of this delicious dish. And don’t let it intimidate you, either….this was quite simple to make; it was just time-consuming, especially stuffing and folding the grape leaves.
1 packet of grape vine leaves
1 and 1/2 cups short grain rice
1 large red onion
1 cup each of fresh parsley, cilantro and mint
3 cups organic ground beef
1 generous teaspoon allspice
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups chicken stock
Juice of three lemons
Soak the grape vines in warm water for about an hour to remove excess salt, then let air dry.
Roughly chop the red onion and saute in olive oil and a bit of butter with a sprinkle of salt, for about 10 minutes. Add the ground beef and break up as it cooks, and add the allspice.
While the meat is cooking, rinse the rice until the water runs clear and soak the rice for another 20 minutes before draining.
Roughly chop the parsley, mint and cilantro and set aside.
Season the meat with salt and pepper before removing it from the heat and pouring into a bowl. Add the drained rice and the fresh chopped herbs. Mix together well and let sit a few minutes to let the flavors combine.
In a smaller saucepan, heat the chicken broth and the lemon juice to a low simmer.
Take one of the damp grapevine leaves, spread out and put a small spoonful of the meat-rice-herb mixture. Fold the sides over the meat tightly, then roll forward so that a small roll forms. Try to make them as tight and snug as you can.
Line a large pot with some of the extra grapevine leaves so they form a bottom layer, and when you’re done filling and rolling your grape leaves, lay them snugly together on top of the grape leaf layer in the large pot. Put a small plate over them so that they are further tucked in tightly.slowly ladle over the hot broth and lemon juice until all the grape leaves are submerged. Heat until boiling, then immediately lower the heat to a simmer and leave covered for an hour to cook.
They should be done after an hour. Remove from the heat and lay your little green bundles of deliciousness on a platter, then drizzle over some of the lemony-chickeny juices from the pan and admire before stuffing them down your throat. They are DELICIOUS!
As they would say in Egypt, bel hana wel shifa!