Anne Rice and her son Christopher Rice recently published their first collaboration: Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra (2017). This book is a sequel to Anne Rice’s The Mummy: Ramses the Damned (1989), although it can be read as a stand-alone novel. (I read The Mummy so many years ago I scarcely remember it, but I wasn’t lost at all in reading this book.)
Warning that if you haven’t yet read Ramses the Damned, there may be some spoilers in my discussion.
In the previous novel, Ramses II was the mummy who came back to life. Actually, we find out that long ago he had obtained an elixir of immortality from a Hittite priestess and had never died but lived for approximately twelve centuries, from roughly 1200 BC to 1 A.D., spanning the time from his own reign to that of the celebrated Cleopatra. He and Cleopatra had been friends and he had been her advisor, but when she begged him to give the elixir to Marc Antony, Ramses refused, and then when Antony died, she killed herself. She had herself refused the elixir when Ramses had previously offered it to her. In despair over Cleopatra’s death, Ramses then went into a deep sleep for nineteen centuries, only to be woken by an Egyptologist just prior to World War I. Eventually, Ramses gave the gift of immortality to the Egyptologist’s daughter Julia and her father’s friend Elliott. Ramses also spotted an unknown mummy in a Cairo museum and realized it was Cleopatra, so he sprinkled some of the elixir on her, bringing her back to life, although because she had died, she appears to be a sort of monster, manic and only having partial memories of the past.
The plot of the second novel continues this storyline, although I won’t go into the plot’s full details. What is most interesting in the second novel is that Rice introduces Bektaten, an ancient queen who lived about 6000 B.C. Bektaten was the original owner of the elixir of immortality, although I don’t believe we are told exactly how she came into its possession. Bektaten has been wandering the earth for millennia, accompanied by two faithful servants—they are the last survivors of the ancient African land of Shaktanu. The only other survivor of this ancient civilization is Saqnos, who had once served Bektaten and had also become immortal from the elixir. However, he stole the elixir and sprinkled it on his warriors, thinking it would make them fearless in battle since they would be immortal. Saqnos wanted his warriors to overthrow Bektaten, but now that they are immortal, they have lost any desire or need to fight, and Bektaten makes her escape.
Later, Saqnos realizes he didn’t have the proper ingredients for the elixir; as a result, his warriors became “fractals,” only living two hundred years before they die. Over the centuries, Saqnos has given this diluted elixir to his many followers, only to suffer a great deal of grief when they die. During all this time, he has also sought Bektaten to get from her the full recipe for the elixir.
While the other characters—Ramses, Cleopatra, Julia, and Sybil, an American novelist who seems to be a reincarnation of Cleopatra, and consequently, seems to be stealing the resurrected Cleopatra’s memory—are more at the center of the plot, for me Bektaten and Saqnos are the most interesting characters in the novel, and the most sublime Gothic moment in the entire novel is when Bektaten displays that she has the power to take back the gift of immortality and takes it from Saqnos. Saqnos’ terror over this situation is the best in the novel, although it shows he has learned nothing through his long life. Most Gothic Wanderer figures in nineteenth century novels see their immortality ultimately as a curse when they continually must grieve the deaths of all those they love, and they often seek to end their lives unsuccessfully.
I won’t discuss more of the plot, but just briefly mention that Rice is drawing upon old Rosicrucian novel themes through her use of an elixir of immortality, a theme used in countless Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century from Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne (1811) to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), probably the greatest of all Rosicrucian novels. The Rosicrucians were a medieval order supposedly founded by Christian Rosencreutz, who had himself discovered the secret of immortality. Although likely fictional himself, Rosencreutz reputedly founded the Rosicrucians, who claimed to be helpers of mankind and possess the secrets of extended life via the elixir and also the philosopher’s stone that can turn lead into gold. The Rosicrucians, in turn, supposedly had occult knowledge from ancient civilizations—civilizations like Rice’s ancient fictional Shaknatu, the kingdom Bektaten once ruled. For more about Rosicrucians in nineteenth century Gothic literature, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.
That Ramses the Damned is a collaboration between mother and son is also worth noting. So how does it rate beside Anne Rice’s other works? I have to admit I thought Christopher Rice’s first two novels, A Density of Souls (2000) and The Snow Garden (2001), were pretty terrible and never would have been published if not for his being Anne Rice’s son. That said, his next novel, Light and Day (2005), was a vast improvement, and he has since come into his own as a novelist. His style is not as lush and decadent as Rice’s so I suspect he wrote more of the novel than she did. Several reviewers have complained about the lack of style. I also will say there is a definite lack of plot and more just simple focus on characterization. Plotwise, it is one of the weakest of Anne Rice’s novels, but stylistically, I found it rather a relief. Some of Rice’s later novels, especially those with Lestat, tend to be so stylistic in terms of the dialogue as to be largely unrealistic, and yet that is part of Lestat’s strange appeal. None of this decadent, flowery language is an issue here. Christopher Rice’s more straightforward style seems to dominate, although the themes are definitely Anne Rice’s. The only part of the novel really rich in Anne Rice’s atmosphere is the last fifty or so pages, where the more flowery language felt very appropriate.
Ultimately, I would not say this is Rice’s best novel, although I think I liked it even more than The Mummy. It is, whatever its flaws, a fascinating book for its treatment of immortal characters who are not vampires. I would welcome another sequel and also to see Bektaten work her way into Rice’s vampire novels farther down the road, just as the Mayfair Witches eventually did. I think any true lover of classic Gothic will find much of interest in these pages.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.