Ray Bradbury never got around to completing the screenplay based on his poem “The Nefertiti-Tut Express.” The project languished for years. He tried to recruit his friend Harlan Ellison to add dialog and direction, but Harlan was just as busy.
What is this tale? As Bradbury regaled a Caltech audience in 1976:
I have a friend, Chuck Jones, the cartoonist, who calls me all the time with revelations he finds in dictionaries and all kinds of reference books he is reading. He called me on the phone and said, “Ray,” and I said, “What?” He said, “Did you know?” I said, “No, tell me.” He said, “Did you know that when they were building the Trans-Egyptian Railroad across Africa 100 years ago and they ran out of fuel, they would stop the locomotive, run into the nearest graveyard, steal mummies out of the tombs, bring them back, shove them into the firebox of the locomotive, and use them as fuel to go across Egypt late at night?!” I said, “That’s great!” I threw down the phone, ran to my typewriter, and wrote a poem called “The Nefertiti-Tut Express”! Well, there’s a metaphor of survival, isn’t it? If a mummy works, you burn it. And all the Egyptian gods and goddesses haunt you across the desert forever after that.
Decades later, there is the promise of a finished edition, The Nefertiti-Tut Express: A Story in Screenplay, ”fleshed-out and reanimated through the artistic vision of Gary Gianni” and forthcoming from The RAS Press.
The story has that mythic quality of feeling so obviously true – Yes, of course that would have happened! – I never thought to question it.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Mark Twain (who may have been a little sharper than the rest of us despite never having written a blog) was openly skeptical about the legend, which is repeated in The Innocents Abroad —
I shall not speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway—I shall only say that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, “D—n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent—pass out a King;”—[Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.]—
So whatever they had before urban legends were invented – whoppers, tall tales, fables? — it was one of those.
[Thanks to John King Tarpinian for the story.]