“Mysterium Tremendum”

This week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: Mysterium Tremendum”, Molly Tanzer, 2013.Mysterium Tremendum

Tanzer’s story isn’t that weird. It’s not even all that Lovecraftian despite its heroine, Marjorie Olenthiste, working for Miskatonic Univerity’.

It is a humorous tale playing off expections created by its Cthulhu Mythos’ references.

The story opens with Marjorie at a tedious garden party put on by her father (despite the late season snow on the ground) in Arkham. Marjorie is a career woman, unmarried, and eager to make her mark in the Francis Morgan Antiquities Collection of Miskatonic U’s library.

At the party, she finds out that one of her father’s acquaintances, the wealthy Mrs. Quildring, is looking to sell off her late husband’s mummy collection.

She starts negotiating with Quildring to get some mummified cats and come around to see the rest of Quildring’s collections. The latter even mentions the prize bit of the collection is a mummified cat “said to have been the personal pet of Nehesy, also called the Black Pharahoh” (an addition made to the Cthulhu Mythos by Robert Bloch).

The party chills – literally – and the lights go out. When they come back on, two men are standing in front of Marjorie and Quildring. One is Edgar, the unattractive and drunk nephew of Quildring, and the other is Maestro Petar Zupan, a famous stage magician. Edgar, an amateur magician, is hangs out with his much more famous friend.

Marjorie thinks back to the stories she’s heard about the aftermaths of Zupan’s performances: a man screaming and speaking in tongues, a woman going home to decapitate her dog and calling on her neighbors to worship the head as a “true god”.

Marjorie eventually finds herself maneuvered by Quilding into going on a date with her nephew to see a show of Zupan’s. She hopes this will ingratiate her with Quildring and lead to a reduced price on the mummies.

At the show, Edgar admits he can’t ever remember actually seeing a Zupan show even though they’ve known each other for a number of years.

Zupan’s show has him doing many things and eventually showing up on stage atop a small pyramid and scantily dressed as an pharaoh. He asks for a volunteer – specifically Marjorie – who has a knowledge of Egyptian rituals.

On stage, Zupan seems to remove her lungs, stomach, and large intestines and heart in accordance with Egyptian mummification rituals.

After Zupan telling her that she kept your heart for “judgement”, she passes out and awakens in her dressing room. She feels fine, “really good like the time her grandmother had given her Bayer Heroin for a toothache”.

Edgar is jealous of Zupan picking Marjorie to be his assistant. Words are exchanged. Edgar calls Marjorie “dumpy and boring” and just there to get access to his aunt’s mummies. Marjorie reciprocates and says Edgar isn’t good company either. Edgar then turns on Zupan, accusing him of spoiling his plan to impress Marjorie with a trip backstage after the show. That’s out of the question since she participated in the act, and Edgar leaves in a huff.

Marjorie realizes, especially after spending some time on stage with the near naked Zupan, that she rather likes him:

very handsome; something about him was electric, magnetic, even when he wasn’t actively performing miracles.

He suggests they go to Quilding’s house and check out that mummified cat.

In front of the house, Zupan asks Marjorie if she believes his powers are genuine. Marjorie is unsure. Zupan tells her she should just trust him.

It isn’t magic that gets the two into the house but a lock pick. Marjorie begins to find Zupan rather irresistible, and they go look at the cat, handily labeled “Mummified Cat, Allegedly Belonging to The Black Pharaoh”.

Marjorie finds it lovely.

Then Zupan begins to reminisce about the cat, Mau-Mau, his old pet put in his tomb 27 centuries ago. Edgar discovered that tomb. Zupan says he’s “another Black Pharaoh entirely” and not Nehesy. Even Edgar figured that out.

In fact, Edgar burned Zupan’s corpse in an attempt to destroy him. However, because Zupan was “mummified with . . . mouth and eyes closed” so his soul would not be reunited with his body in the afterlife, he survived. With his body burned, his soul found a new body.

But he still wants Mau-Mau, the mummified cat, back. She was the only creature never afraid of him.

Then Zupan magically compels Marjories to help in a ritual to resurrect Mau-Mau.

Zupa then thanks Marjorie for her help. And he tells her that he’s sure that she’ll come up with some explanation for the police about

why such a promising young acquisitions librarian would sneak into a home and destroy a priceless Egyptian artifact.

Maybe they’ll blame her attendance on his show “that’s a popular one these days.”

And then he disappears leaving Marjorie to offer Quildring and Edgar some explanation as to why she has a hammer in her hand and where the cat mummy went

It’s a humorous takeoff on the Mythos, here magic used for a relatively petty purpose. The heroine is not left dead or insane, just a fall gal. Zupan is rather like Nyarlathotep, a traveling magician of disturbing power.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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