This Weeks Prompt: 123. Dried-up man living for centuries in cataleptic state in ancient tomb.
The Resulting Story: A Night At The Museum
The prompt here is one of the rare ones that genuinely frightens me—the thought of being buried alive has always unnerved me, and more than once I have looked up what to do if you were buried alive and needed to escape. And here we have something…even more terrifying. Not only being buried, but trapped in an ancient tomb as a mumfiied state.
We can consider this a sort of inversion of our sleeping figures we discussed here, or perhaps an extreme extension of sleep paralysis. Here we have a man alive in this state—a state induced by supernatural means, as obviously a cataleptic state does not stop the need for food or water—as time passes away in an ancient tomb.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Catalepsy is a state in which one has a wax like rigidity—limbs stay where moved, but can be moved—and a numbness to pain. While some body functions are slowed, such as breathing, the sort described here takes things to an entirely new level. The theme of catalyepsy leading to being buried alive is a recurring one in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher and the Premature Burial both address these.
The horror of the situation is apparent, but the scale of time makes it strange. The shock of awakening, unable to move, and the slow and inescapable decay of the mind. But centuries are vast and terrible oceans of time—it is hard to convey their passage in a few thousand words. The alternative is that such a man, living in his state, is discovered and manages to somehow awaken.
The pharsing dried up does separate this state from the more common states of eternal rest or life, where a person has explicitly not decayed. I think, for instance, of walking saints of Greece. These saints are entombed, but they remain there—and they supposedly are free to wander the earth for quiet some time. There are other states that are comparable—the state of a princess in Balkan stories of vampires resembles a cataleptic state. She remains apparently both dead and alive, but rises from her tomb to feed on those left to guard her. It is only the advice of another vampire or a saint that spares the hero of her predations.
Indeed, perhaps the fate of this individual is to be at first mistaken for a corpse, put on display like many others. Then he could be revived from his slumber, freed of his state somehow—if not in the physical, perhaps in the unseen realm. Dreaming or projecting his consciousness outward, using the same secrets that preserved him for millenia—trapping someone else in his body. This would fall into the grotesque acts of hypnosis that we have seen earlier this year.
A slightly amusing work might look at the obsession with illness, fainting, and general…death appearance that the Victorians had and play with that here, given our gentleman resembles a corpse or death itself in a far crueler way.
I’m reminded of something….else as well, a bit outside of folklore. There was a story on a number of websites of the discovery that a Buddhist statue actually contained a monk who had self mummified in an effort to become a living buddha. A special diet was undertaken to make this process easier—food was eaten to strip fat and moisture, toxic liquids were drank in order to repel insects, and so on. But a number of post mortem practices were preformed on the meditating monk—the replacement of organs with paper, for instance. Some Buddhists believe that the meditating monks are not dead but are, like our own subject, in a deep state of consciousness.
This concept has a bit more pop culture pull then might be expected, as a similar concept appears in Dark Soul’s Monumental, beings who have become meditating guardians and statues like stone. These beings spend their time pushing back against a terrifying, existential creature of fog and lost perception—the Old One, a Lovecraftian entity as old as mankind itself.
A similar fate befalls the immortals in Death’s Master, who after gaining immortality lose all drive and will—and slowly become so stagnate that they are overcome by coral as their city sinks into the sea. One such man is returned in Night’s Daughter to a much stranger disposition on life. Another man becomes one with the stones, for very similar reasons—having lost all drive and passion for the world, he slowly mummifies in a cavern atop a large column rock. His name I’m afraid escapes me, although I remember he was in love with Simmu. I believe he was in Night’s Master.
While looking into that story, the story of another preserved pair of bodies in Sweden. Here, illness preserved the bishop’s body, along with the cold of winter at the time of his burial. However, more fascinating was that he was not alone in his coffin—underneath his body was a still born child. Why such a burial was preformed is unknown as of writing—perhaps it was in hopes that the child would reach heaven with the bishop, as they died unbaptized. Perhaps it was to hide the child’s existence.
There is a story that appears to have sprung from this prompt: Out of Aeons features a very life like mummy and a metal cylinder being brought to a museum in the 1800s. After being placed in a museum, it attracts attention as relating to a little known myth about a man going to see the gods and becoming a statue. This leads in time to attempts at a robbery, which ends…poorly. You can read the story in full here.
There is another pulp story that this calls to mind, which is the story The Hour of the Dragon where a mummified ancient sorcerer is revived for a plot to overthrow the king of Hyboreia, Conan. Conan triumphs in the end, with unexpected allies saving him both from execution and the supernatural might of tyrant from the past. You can read the story here. While seemingly only tangentially related, Mr. Lovecraft and Mr. Howard were correspondents. In fact, references between the two bodies of work have only grown. And it does play into the genre tropes discussed—associations with mystical power and the inevitable danger of such a body reanimating. Granted, there is a world of difference between a monk and bishop and a wizard out of time. But given our nature as a horror blog, perhaps the distance between those two poles of knowledge can be lessened somewhat.
I think the story’s basic beats—the discovery of a mummy, the attempted robbery from a museum before something terrible happens, and then the discovery of its true nature—are fairly strong. I think of course that merely rewriting the story is a bit…much. Zooming in on the robbery will keep the story focused, I think, and while something of the surprise at a body becoming animate is lost, not much of that remains anyway. This does make the story something of a bizzare mummy’s curse story. The Mummy’s curse is often laid on those who disturb its tomb, where as here it seems the robbers are the ones to fall victim. Perhaps including a bit more of that to the beginning, the mysterious deaths surrounding the mummy might even be a motive to rob it. A curator, realizing that such a thing is cursed and bringing doom upon those around it, might wish such an image “tragically lost” from the museum’s collection, for instance—or perhaps the employer of the theft wishes ill upon its recipient and hopes to pass the curse onto them.
What do you think? What long preserved corpses would resurrect?