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.
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.
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.
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”.