Bram Stoker’s “The Jewel of the Seven Stars”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula follow-up The Jewel of the Seven Stars is best-billed as a supernatural Egyptomaniacal Victorian novel. It’s almost unbelievable the lengths to which Stoker went in his novel to make it fit, with blazing accuracy at all points, into all three of those categories.
1. Supernatural – The plot centers around a malevolent (or is she?) Egyptian queen who may or may not be coming back to life in the form of her mummified body (and the mummified body of her cat-familiar). Queen Tera doesn’t make much of a splash herself, but Stoker conjures up an impressively large number of supernatural phenomena that she could be credited with if one were so inclined. These include theft, attempted murder, actual murder, and general mad scientist-ish attempts to live forever. The whole story kicks off with the attempted murder (or was it?!—Stoker’s attempts at the supernatural are largely matters of just not really knowing what’s going on, rather than any detailed descriptions of said supernatural events) of a renowned British Egyptologist, which may or may not have been the fault of Queen Tera.
2. Egyptomaniacal - Did I mention the (possibly) undead mummy of an Egyptian queen? But even apart from Queen Tera, Stoker’s narrative is also liberally doused in various bits of Egyptomania: canopic jars and ancient Egyptian lamps are major plot points while Stoker name-checks notable contemporary Egyptologists like Petrie and Budge and makes jokes about the British Museum’s holdings. The house where most of the story takes place is a trove of Egyptological artifacts, which are all laboriously described by Stoker in great detail. Stoker also feels compelled to assign lengthy Egyptological lectures to various characters. Most of these are somewhat relevant to the plot, but are so long that they are a slog to read. And the others are just rudely inserted into characters’ mouths, apparently to prove Stoker did his research.
3. Victorian – I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that no Victorian novel would be complete without:
a) a virginal female protagonist who is both prone to swooning and can keep a stiff upper lip with the best of her fellow Brits;
b) an intelligent and stalwart male protagonist who is easily overcome with manly emotion by his love for the virginal female protagonist and is likely pretty well in the dark about what’s actually going on (sadly he is also likely our narrator);
c) some kind of quirky professorial character (likely the father of the virginal female protagonist) who is more aware of what’s going on than any of the other characters;
d) assorted other male characters in various professional capacities (a doctor will probably make an appearance at some point);
e) the household staff of the virginal female protagonist (she treats them with hugely emotional respect and they love her in return).
Stoker hits all these points as well as assorted Victorian plots involving admiration/love, courage, and (above all!) propriety. You won’t catch the virginal female protagonist doing much more than passionately holding hands with the intelligent and stalwart male protagonist. And what a thrill that hand-holding is!
It may sound like I didn’t enjoy Seven Stars, but actually I really did, perhaps because of my affection for all three of Stoker’s hard-hit tropes. The sheer ridiculousness of all three (particularly the Victorian part) to modern readers actually proved quite entertaining in a way I’m sure Stoker did not intend.
In fact, the only real stumbling point in Seven Stars is the plot itself. Stoker was so concerned with Egyptological accuracy, keeping the mystery alive, and maintaining his Victorian virtues that he appears to have spared very little energy for the plot. The first 3/4 of the book—wherein mysterious things happen and someone repeatedly tries to murder the comatose Egyptologist—works perfectly. By the time the Egyptologist suddenly awakens (no spoilers, it’s always assumed he will at some point), I, the reader, was excited and dying to come to the climax and expected big reveal.
Instead, Stoker takes a super-dull left turn in the plot and veers off into the land of lengthy Egyptological lectures (mostly about fictional historic figures and half-true mythologies) that explain a lot about Egyptian history but not much about what’s going on in the book. The Egyptologist seems to have all the answers, but doesn’t care to share the most important ones with the audience, leaving me pretty unsatisfied.
This feeling of disappointment was further kindled by the abrupt and wholly supernatural ending. Stoker wrote two endings for the book (both provided by the Penguin edition I read), one which is guillotine-abrupt and leaves gaping plot holes open and one which is a little bit longer and answers a few questions, but also leaves a few open to interpretation, presumably in an attempt to keep the supernatural portion of the book fully alive and creepy to readers. Both endings were disappointing (the former more so than the latter) and totally unfulfilling.
All the same, I enjoyed Seven Stars a lot more than I thought I would. It was interesting read something by Stoker that wasn’t his opus and it was an appropriately Halloween-y read. There are probably more satisfying supernatural Victorian novels in the world, but probably not as many who hit the tropes of the genre so precisely.