Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

Bram Stoker’s name is inextricably and deservedly associated with horror fiction, thanks to his famous novel Dracula.  Of course, he wrote other novels and short stories, many of which are mostly (and undeservedly) forgotten today.  With this in mind, I recently started working my way through some of these other works.  A couple of weeks ago I read and blogged about Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), a quite wonderful story about an ancient Egyptian curse and a resurrected mummy that predates modern mummy movies and the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb!

Emboldened, I turned next to reading what became Stoker’s last novel, The Lair of the White Worm, written in 1911.

Cover of the 1911 first edition of The Lair of the White Worm, via Wikipedia.

Well.  Um.  Hmm.  The nicest thing I can say is that The Lair of the White Worm is not quite what I expected.  What it really is, however, is a baffling, incoherent, almost impenetrable work.  Though the idea of the novel is original, it is so poorly executed that it is difficult to recommend.  However, Bram Stoker likely should be excused for this, as we will see.

The Lair of the White Worm is set in an ancient, hilly and remote portion of Derbyshire, England called Mercia, whose property boundaries were set back in the times of the Romans or earlier.  Adam Salton, until recently living abroad in Australia, has accepted an invitation from his recently discovered great-uncle to live at his estate at Lesser Hill.  The two men hit it off immediately, and because Adam has an avid interest in ancient history, Mr. Salton introduces him to his friend and archaeologist Nathaniel, who lives at the happily-named Doom Tower nearby.

Adam has arrived in Mercia at an interesting time — the great house of the region, Castra Regis, is welcoming back a resident for the first time in decades.  Edgar Caswall, the ancestral heir to the estate, is returning home.  Especially intrigued by this development is another nearby resident, the beautiful but icy Lady Arabella March, who lives at the magnificent manor called Diana’s Grove.  Lady March has fallen on hard financial times, and has an eye towards a marriage to Caswall to raise her fortunes.  However, Caswall himself has set his sights on the lovely girls who live at Mercy Farm, Mimi and Lilla Watford.

Adam and Nathaniel quickly come to realize that both Caswell and March have sinister plans for the people of Mercia.  Furthermore, the begin to suspect that these plans are tied to an ancient legend of the White Worm: a serpent of truly monstrous size, ancient age, and deadly power, and possibly one which has developed human intelligence and evil through its millenia of life.  This serpent supposedly has slumbered underneath the land for hundreds of years — and Lady March’s home, Diana’s Grove, was also known in the distant past as the Lair of the White Worm.

Soon Adam and Nathaniel are struggling to not only rescue Lilla and Mimi from a supernatural threat, but also to save themselves from destruction.  The White Worm has awakened from its slumber, and it hungers…

Unfortunately, the description I provide above gives more credit to the story than it earns.  There are a number of fundamental flaws with the narrative and tone of the story that are quite insurmountable.  One can see the glimmer of a brilliant story in Stoker’s writing, but the execution is lacking.

Before I describe more details, I should mention something that jumps right out at the reader: the shocking racism present in the story.  One of the principal characters in the first half of the novel is Caswell’s African servant Oolanga, who is presented as a diabolical and scheming savage.  This in itself isn’t surprising, as many stories of the late 19th/early 20th century used “scary foreigners” as villains to appeal to xenophobic fears.  What is shocking, however, is Stoker’s indirect slander of the entire African people; for instance, Oolanga is introduced as:

But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp — the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.

Yowtch.  Oolanga’s presence is especially odd in that he serves almost no purpose in the story other than to be vile and evil and, eventually, to meet a particularly gruesome fate.

Such unusual plot holes are quite common in White Worm.  Ideas are introduced that go nowhere, and characters have motivations and strategies that are utterly unclear.  Caswell, for instance, spends much time in the novel attempting to mesmerize Lilla — why?  To coerce her to marry him?  For other purposes?  The novel never quite explains it, nor does it explain how others witnessing the psychic attacks do nothing to overtly stop them.  Also, Caswell discovers an unusual chest containing the actual belongings of Franz Mesmer, and spends time attempting to open the mysterious chest and understand its contents.  This plot development lasts for two chapters and is never mentioned again.

At other places in the novel, the ordering of events becomes genuinely nonsensical.  A crucial event relating to Adam, Lady March, and Oolanga seems to be told out of chronological order, but the different pieces of the tale, spread out over different chapters, don’t seem to fit together — it is as if Stoker himself could not remember what he had just written.  (This is actually plausible — see below.)

Most maddening of all (mild spoiler): it is suggested that Lady March has an intimate connection to the White Worm of legend.  However, it is unclear if: (a) Lady March is the White Worm herself, and is able to shapeshift, (b) the White Worm can shapeshift and take on the form of Lady March, (c) Lady March is human, and the White Worm cannot shapeshift, (d) Lady March is a more evolved form of a White Worm, while the Worm itself is a separate being.  Stoker’s characters seems to come to one conclusion or another without missing a beat or seeing a contradiction in their views.

So what are we to make of these bizarre plot incongruities, and many others that I haven’t mentioned?  A clue, perhaps, is that White Worm was published in 1911, and Stoker himself died in 1912.  Stoker seems to have been ill for many years before this: The Times obituary states* that he had been sick since 1906.  It is not certain how Stoker died; one theory states that he had untreated syphilis, though most consider a stroke to be the cause of death.  Both strokes and syphilis would have affected Stoker’s mind; reading White Worm, one gets the sad impression of an author whose mind and body was failing him, who nevertheless struggled to continue his work.  This is, of course, only speculation on my part, but paints a powerful image and gives the novel a completely different tone.

There are occasional flashes of brilliance in the novel.  After the White Worm awakens, the heroes of the story seek shelter in Doom Tower.  At night, they peer out through the tower windows and see the glowing green eyes and white body of the serpent towering, silent and still, over the treetops in the distance.

Illustration by Pamela Colman Smith of the White Worm, from the 1911 first edition of the novel. (via Wikipedia)

Another frightening scene is a frantic flight of the heroes by carriage, pursued to the coast of England and beyond by the monstrous worm.  These scenes show what White Worm could have been, if its author had been in better health.

It is also worth noting that science makes a few interesting appearances in the novel, as it did in Stoker’s earlier Jewel of Seven Stars.  In discussing the possible metabolic changes that might have turned an ancient and primitive serpent into a sophisticated and cunning predator, Stoker cites the “miracle substance” of the time, radium:

After all, the mediæval belief in the Philosopher’s Stone which could transmute metals has its counterpart in the accepted theory of metabolism which changes living tissue.  Why, the theory has been put forward by a great scientist** that the existence of radium and its products proves the truth of the theory of transmutation of metal.  In an age of investigation like our own, when we are returning to science as the base of wonders — almost of miracles — we should be slow to refuse to accept facts, however impossible they may seem to be.

I’ve talked about the history of radium many times on this blog (for example, see this and this).  Radium, discovered and isolated by Marie Curie, is a million times more radioactive than uranium, and it seemed like a limitless source of energy.  Even serious scientists ascribed almost magical healing powers to the substance until its dangerous effects became undeniable.  It also served as a great plot device for writers of speculative and horror fiction such as H.G. Wells, R.W. Wood and of course Bram Stoker.

Stoker’s White Worm is itself based upon a beast of legend from Northeast England, the Lambton Worm.  In the legend, the prideful actions of a man named John Lambdon causes a gigantic serpent to grow and terrorize the countryside.  Lambdon himself returns home from the Crusades to battle the beast with a spiked suit of armor, but he fails to atone completely for his earlier deeds and therefore dooms his descendants to horrible deaths.

Illustration of Lambdon versus the worm, from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s 1890 book English Fairy and Other Folk Tales. (via Wikipedia)

It is worth mentioning that Stoker’s tale was adapted into a very bizarre and sexualized 1988 movie, The Lair of the White Worm.

In the end, I find it impossible to recommend The Lair of the White Worm to most readers.  It is a baffling and confusing collection of ideas that will most likely appeal to diehard fans of Bram Stoker and those interested in the history of horror fiction.  However, if you can get past the many faults, the idea of the White Worm is a nice departure from the traditional horror monsters such as vampires that Stoker himself popularized!


* The New York Times obituary, on the same web page, is humorous in hindsight in that it lists Dracula as merely “among his other works”.

** This reference may either be to Frederick Soddy or Ernest Rutherford, who together discovered that radioactivity involves transmutation — the conversion of one element into another.


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5 Responses to Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

  1. Kaleberg says:

    Ken Russell’s movie, on the other hand, was wonderfully campy. Stoker was big on a certain type of repressed sexuality. Look at his Dracula where a man has to cure or kill his vampire girlfriend by driving his – ahem – stake into her – ahem – heart. Sexing up, and camping up, Lair for the movie version seems to have improved it.

  2. Gail Garrett says:

    Thank you.
    Ailments do change the minds of men & Stoker could have had one of many diseases, including early dementia. He was, after all, debilitated until age 7, never even walking because of an ailment he eventually overcame – which could have returned with a vengeance in the years just prior to his death.
    The white worm could have represented any one of many things… pagan worship, cocaine, time consuming varied ‘quests’ men often have, like treasure hunting, or misunderstood diseases of that time.
    So, that…was interesting.
    Stokes characterizations seem to have come from time established “branding of tribes” throughout the world – as opposed to creative thinking and insight, but it is still a good basis for a great novel.
    It was one of those novels written about something going on in an area of that time (Lambton worm) . It brings to mind a similar novel, “My Cousin Rachel”…which was written at a time when the law for women to be able to own property without being married was in question.
    Both of these works probably alluded more to subjects like political upheaval, or contemporary folk lore, than anything else.
    Maybe one day some author will take the premise, be more specific, more open minded about “types” of humans, and turn it into a good read.

  3. evangelos55 says:

    Thank you for such a comprehensive and thoughtful review. I could not agree more with your appraisal of the novel. Personally I thought the best written passages were the scene in the lair where Adam encounters the hole of the Worm for the first time. The image itself, a seemingly bottomless pit in the basement of an ancient building, shrouded in gloom and emanating a sickening, otherworldly scent is certainly among some of Stoker’s best images, on par with Dracula scaling the wall of his castle. The chapter describing Edgar Caswall’s madness in the tower was also very psychologically astute. The novel certainly has many promising threads, such as mesmerism, paganism, evolutionism; it’s just unfortunate that not much comes of them.

  4. Ciaran Mac says:

    I’m just over half way through the book and I had to stop to see if I was just being dense or if it really was incomprehensible to others. I read it when I was about ten or eleven years of age just after I read Dracula but thinking back I may have gotten bored with it around the interminable rambling about the kite.

    So far it seems that almost nothing has happened that relates to any story. It seems like a mess of bits and pieces that I had hoped would come together in something sensible but going by your blog, that isn’t going happen.

    And the racism!

    I try to look at older books as being of a time and try to judge them off the standard of the day. This seems to be up there with Birth of a Nation for sheer bigoted rancour. Not only do the characters use the n-word constantly but it’s in the narration far more than ‘African’ or ‘Negro’. The narration isn’t by a character; it’s Stoker’s own voice. I’m baffled at how Lovecraft takes so much heat for his racism but I’ve never heard a peep about this book.

    I’m wondering now if it’s as pervasive in his other works. I’ve only read a few stories up to now but I’m intrigued to see what his attitude is like in general.

    • evangelos55 says:

      Well Stoker has a short story called “The Red Stockade” that is about a band of British soldiers fighting pirates in a swamp somewhere in Southeastern Asia. It certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the natives.

      Even in Dracula, however, you’ll remember all of Van Helsing’s long digressions about Dracula’s “child brain.” This reflects the contemporary scientific belief that criminals were somehow mentally damaged or deficient. Physiognomy is also a recurrent feature in most of Stoker’s work that I’ve read, particularly in The Jewel of Seven Stars.

      I know the Lady of the Shroud is set in the Balkans. Haven’t read it yet, but I’d be curious to know how the local cultures are portrayed in that.

      Back to the White Worm, I fully agree that the racism is very off-putting. However, I think there’s more going on than mere bigotry. When Caswall first disembarks with Oolanga, the narrator makes a point of contrasting Oolanga’s black skin with Lady Marsh’s extremely pale complexion. Salton also stresses several times that the Caswall line, though retaining an exterior appearance of propriety, have become savage.

      So I think the point of the book, or at least what Stoker was aiming for, was to show that savagery is not only on the surface. A man like Oolanga is a debased witch doctor who delights in causing pain and worships repulsive creatures. But in the end, the real monster of the story is not him, but the prim and proper Lady Arabella and the titled Edgar Caswall. The first is not in fact human at all while the other, even though an English gentleman with an ancient pedigree, is in reality no more “advanced” than his servant Oolanga: he uses occult techniques to bend an innocent girl to his will and makes an idol of the kite.

      Oolanga serves as the scapegoat on which the reader is encouraged to focus his disgust and hate. But he’s only a temporary distraction for true monsters of the story/

      It’s just too bad all this was marred by the poor writing and pointless slurs. The main trouble I find was that (1) we were not really given any compelling reason to hate Oolanga apart from his race, only hints about his “unspeakable deeds.” The character was too strereotyped and flat. (2) Lady Arabella wasn’t developed. We know something isn’t right with her from the beginning, and we never really get to know her as a person. So when it turns out she is the worm it is less shocking. My feeling is that Stoker intended for her to be the female equivalent to Dracula. But the horror and danger is simply not there.

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