In which The Author relives a childhood nightmare
When I was six years old, the Tutankhamun Exhibition came to London.
1972 was the fiftieth anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of this most famous of Egyptian tombs (which I why I can date it so accurately.) The full collection toured the world, and stopped off at the British Museum on its travels. Soon afterwards, I was the recipient of a lavishly-illustrated hardback book about the mysterious boy-king and the treasures intended to accompany him on his journey to the Duat.
I can’t remember which of my aunts and/or uncles bought it for me, but I’ve got a feeling that it was either Auntie Sylvia from Kent, or Josie J. and Bill from St. John’s Wood. I can’t imagine it was Auntie Maggie or my godfather Denis – the various gods and goddesses depicted would have broken the Second Commandment in their eyes. (Sadly, it’s too late to ask any of them to clarify this part of the story.)
I was too young to read a great deal of the text, of course. While I appreciated the generosity, in retrospect it should probably have been kept in a cupboard for ten years or so before it was handed over to me. Over the course of time, the colour plates worked their way free of the binding, and the pages soon followed suit. It fell apart many years ago, which is a real shame, as it would be quite a collector’s item these days.
Even so, it sparked my life-long fascination with Ancient Egypt: its history, culture, religion, and civilization in general. After all, what’s not to like about a society with a fertility goddess – Hathor – who (according to a magazine article which Vicki F. once showed me) was invoked with narcotics and music? As Vix herself said, Hathor was the Goddess of Sex and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll.
My first tattoo was the Eye of Horus, and I have the god Thoth tattooed on my right shoulder. (I had to think about that, so Rhian very kindly checked, attracting a few odd glances in the Prince!) I also have little statuettes of Thoth, Isis, Hathor and Anubis on my bookshelves at home. Oh, yes – that Anubis, the jackal-headed guardian of the Underworld.
When I was a kid, I was terrified out of my mind by this fellow, I can tell you! I’ve no idea why. After all, I didn’t know anything about the deity’s associations with death and damnation at the time. I think it was just the shape of the head, those great bloody ears, and the detail around the eyes, that freaked me out. I remember that there was a full-page black-and-white photo of him in the Tutankhamun book, and I memorized the page number so that I could skip it when I was leafing through. Even now, some four decades later, it still gives me a chill to look at it…
When I was 35 years old, and in the middle of my very brief involvement with Australian Emma (see From a Land Down Under
), I bought the Anubis figurine from Rebel Rebel in Cardiff. I decided that it was time to confront my childhood head-on, and treated myself to it one lunchtime. It was the first of my small collection. It’s actually a candlestick, but I’ve only lit the candle a couple of times. To have his shadow flickering around the walls would cost me even more sleep than I lose already.
A few years after my first encounter with Egyptology, during the autumn of 1975, the BBC broadcast a four-part Doctor Who story called ‘Pyramids of Mars.’ The opening couple of minutes, where a white-suited Englishman discovers a long-buried Egyptian tomb, struck an immediate chord with me. I was immediately back in the era of the great discoveries I’d read about. He and his native bearers enter, only for the Egyptians to flee at the sight of the Eye of Horus. Dismissing their leader with a snarl of ‘Superstitious savage!’, the Englishman enters the inner chamber and is struck down by an unseen force.
The scene cuts to the interior of the TARDIS, where the Doctor and Sarah are chatting about his extended life-span and his Time Lord past. Instantly the ship is hit by some sort of force, and a terrifying face appears in mid-air. The TARDIS comes to rest in an old priory (the site on which the UNIT base was built) where mysterious and terrifying events are about to unfold…
This particular period of Doctor Who, with the great Robert Holmes as script editor and Philip Hinchcliffe as producer, is noted for its leanings towards Gothic horror. This story, written by Holmes and producer Paddy Russell under the pseudonym ‘Stephen Harris’, was turned into a novel by Terrance Dicks, and I’ve still got the Target paperbacks edition on the shelves at home. It fits alongside ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ and ‘The Brain of Morbius’ as a sort-of homage to the great horror films produced by Universal Studios. The walking mummies were genuinely scary when I watched it the first time round, as Bob Holmes had intended. Even when the Doctor revealed that they were actually cleverly-disguised robots, they were still fearsome foes.
However, the true terror (for me, anyway) was only revealed in the concluding episode, when the evil Sutekh was unmasked – literally. He might not have had the head of Anubis, but to my nine-year old eyes he might as well have done. The original model for Set, the murderous brother of Horus in the Egyptian pantheon, Sutekh plans to destroy all life in the Universe. Only the Doctor and Sarah stand between him and the end of everything.
Since I knew that nobody would have the good taste to buy it for me as a Xmas present, I treated myself to the DVD. I watched it last night, for the first time in nearly forty years. Time hasn’t been kind to it, to be honest. Some of the effects are risible when we look back from the vantage point of huge budgets and high-tech CGI. The script is melodramatic in places and some of the acting is awfully stagy.
However, there’s lots of good stuff there too. Tom Baker gives an intense performance throughout, and there’s a chilling scene when he shows Sarah the possible consequences of letting Sutekh loose upon the Earth. The incidental music is extremely atmospheric, the direction carries the story along at a cracking pace, and above all there’s spirited dialogue, genuinely frightening adversaries, and some beautiful laugh-out-loud moments. That’s the true spirit of Doctor Who, after all.
The weirdest thing about the whole experience of watching it again, though, was this: last night, when I had a bath before turning in, I left the bathroom door slightly ajar. I was nine years old again, afraid that Sutekh (or even Anubis himself) would materialize behind my back. When I went into my bedroom, I even made a point of putting my bedside lamp on before I turned the main light off – just in case he appeared in those few seconds of darkness. Isn’t it odd how the things which terrified you as a child come back when you least expect them to?
There’s a strange postscript to this, as well. One of the bondage websites to which I subscribe shared a photograph this week, of a woman in an elaborate leather outfit, and wearing a hood in the shape of Anubis’ head. I was scrolling through it and stopped in my tracks when I saw the picture. As I told you in Behind the Mask
, ordinarily I’d have been incredibly drawn to a picture of a woman with her head covered. However, that one attracted me and frightened me in equal measure. It was a beautiful image, and I couldn’t help wondering how much a mask like that would cost to make. Maybe it would be a cool fancy dress costume for me next Halloween – just as long as I kept away from any mirrors…