Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Lair of the White Worm

I just finished Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm, which I started on the train to Portsmouth on January 31st. It was dire, and I want back the time I expended reading it. So that you won't have to endure it, here's a synopsis (apologies for the racist parts).

The story concerns Adam Salton, the heir to a Peak District estate, who finds himself in conflict with a mixed collection of villains: primarily Lady Arabella March, who is in league with the monstrous White Worm; but also with Edgar Caswall, a Mesmerism-obsessed landowner, and his sinister African servant Oolanga. By chapter:

It's 1860, and Adam Salton, a young and successful Australian rancher and businessman, arrives in England at the invitation of his grand-uncle Richard Salton, who wants to make him his heir.

En route to his Peak District home, Lesser Hill, Mr Salton fills in Adam on local history, and when they arrive introduces Adam to his historian friend Sir Nathaniel de Salis, who tells him more; they both mention the general scariness of the local major landowners, the Caswall family.

Sir Nathaniel lays more local history on Adam, showing him the landscape including the Castle and the wooded hilltop known as Diana's Grove.

Sir Nathaniel takes Adam to Liverpool meet the Castle's new tenant, Mr Caswall, who is returning from Africa. En route they run into Lady Arabella March, whose carriage has broken down. While Adam mends it, he notices snakes hanging around, and also notices that Lady Arabella is weird:

She wore a close-fitting cap of some fine fur of dazzling white. Coiled round her white throat was a large necklace of emeralds, whose profusion of colour dazzled when the sun shone on them. Her voice was peculiar, very low and sweet, and so soft that the dominant note was of sibilation. Her hands, too, were peculiar--long, flexible, white, with a strange movement as of waving gently to and fro.

She invites him to visit Diana's Grove, where she lives. Once she's away, Sir Nathaniel tells Adam that it's generally known she's after Caswall for his money. They all arrive at Liverpool, and Adam is struck by Caswall's appearance...

so hard, so ruthless, so selfish, so dominant

and that of his African servant Oolanga

unreformed, unsoftened savage, and inherent in it were all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp--the lowest of all created things that could be regarded as in some form ostensibly human

While in Liverpool, Adam buys a mongoose to deal with the snakes he saw. They go back to the Castle for Caswall's homecoming fete, where Adam meets the granddaughters of the local farmer Michael Watford, Lilli and Mimi. He's especially taken with the half-Burmese Mimi.

Once home at Lesser Hill, Adam, evenidently protective toward both sisters, gets angry at the way Mr Caswall was looking in a rather predatory way at Lilla. Changing the subject, Sir Nathaniel lays yet more local history on him, telling him the legend of the White Worm, a monstrous serpent under Diana's Grove.

Adam, having been out snake-killing with his mongoose, comes home annoyed. Having visited Mercy Farm, where Lilli and Mimi Watford live, he reports how Caswall had visited too, and had been staring at them in a very odd way. Adam says he's getting Very Bad Vibes.

Sir Nathaniel, privately, asks Adam for more details of the staring incident, advising him of the extreme dangerousness of Oolanga. Adam goes off mongoosing again; in the woods, he meets Lady Arabella, whom his mongoose tries to attack. She shoots it, a lot.

Adam and Sir Nathaniel discuss the mongoose-shooting over breakfast, and via more local history and stories of local attacks and murders, come to the conclusion that Lady Arabella is under the control of the White Worm.

Adams gets two replacement mongooses; and borrows Ooolanga, who has some kind of voodoo powers, to look for vibes of death at various locations. Adam meets Lady Arabella, who pets one of his mongooses, which apparently runs off. He goes home, where Sir Nathaniel tells him one of Caswall's ancestors was a student of Mesmer. Adam then finds the missing mongoose strangled in its box.

Sir Nathaniel tells Adam of a frightening encounter at Mercy Farm: a kind of intense psychic staring match between Mr Caswall, Lady Arabella and Oolanga versus Mimi and Lilla. Finally Mimi wins:

Her face suddenly flamed, as if some divine light shone through it. Her form expanded till it stood out majestically. Lifting her right hand, she stepped forward towards Caswall, and with a bold sweep of her arm seemed to drive some strange force towards him. Again and again was the gesture repeated, the man falling back from her at each movement. Towards the door he retreated, she following. There was a sound as of the cooing sob of doves, which seemed to multiply and intensify with each second. The sound from the unseen source rose and rose as he retreated, till finally it swelled out in a triumphant peal, as she with a fierce sweep of her arm, seemed to hurl something at her foe, and he, moving his hands blindly before his face, appeared to be swept through the doorway and out into the open sunlight.

Suddenly then the sky is filled with birds. Caswall orders a huge kite, which his servants fly day and night to frighten the birds from the crops.

Caswall becomes obsessed with the kite, as well as with the varied curios stored in the Castle. He's especially interested in a chest with no visible means of opening; his servant Old Simon is very scared of it, having seen the contents once.

Caswall has a strange dream of carrying the chest upstairs and opening it. He wakes up and finds that he has. Inside there are various glass devices. He continues his experiments with the kite.

Oolanga spots Lady Arabella sneaking in and out of the Castle. Suspicious that she is after the treasure he thinks is in the chest, he follows her and confronts her, offering her his love. She rejects him on largely racist grounds, drawing a revolver, so he threatens blackmail (evidently with a confused idea of the English legal process):

He warned her that he knew she had tried to steal his master's treasure, and that he had caught her in the act. But if she would be his, he would share the treasure with her, and they could live in luxury in the African forests. But if she refused, he would tell his master, who would flog and torture her and then give her to the police, who would kill her.

Lady Arabella invited Caswall to join her at Mercy Farm for another try at the psychic staring match. Again, Mimi wins, causing another manifestation of birds, which cause the collapse of Caswall's kite. Caswall goes home and mends the kite, before pressing Old Simon on what had scared him in the chest; Old Simon drops dead.

Lady Arabella sees Old Simon's death as an opoportunity to get to know Caswall better; followed by Oolanga, she goes to the Castle.

Lady Arabella visits Caswall, offers her sympathies, and tells Caswall about her encounter with Oolanga. He advises her to think nothing of it:

"If you have the slightest fault to find with that infernal nigger, shoot him at sight. A swelled-headed nigger, with a bee in his bonnet, is one of the worst difficulties in the world to deal with. So better make a clean job of it, and wipe him out at once!"

Sir Nathaniel tells Adam about Lady Arabella's house, mentioning a mysterious and foul-smelling well in one room.

Adam decides to explore Diana's Grove, where he sees Oolanga bringing Lady Arabella the mongoose box, and arranging a meeting with her there that evening.

Adam follows Lady Arabella and warns her not to trust Ooolanga. He goes with her to the well room in her house and hides when Oolanga arrives. Oolanga, however, notices him and after ineffectually exchanging pistol fire, they grapple at the edge of the well. As Lady Arabella is about to join the fight to help Adam, his final surviving mongoose breaks loose and attacks her. She tears it in half and grabs Oolanga, pulling them both down into the well. Adams hears horrible screams and sees a baleful green light from the well, but when he leaves the room, he sees Lady Arabella is back out of the well and calmly following him.

Adam goes home and sleeps on matters. The next morning he gets a courteous letter from Lady Arabella telling an entirely different story of events: that Oolanga had been after her emerald collar (hence the green glow) and had fallen into the well while grasping for it. Over breakfast, Adam reveals that he is in love with Mimi and wants to protect her from Lady Arabella.

Adam and Sir Nathaniel discuss Adam's account and the letter in detail, concluding that Mimi needs immediate protection and Lady Arabella must be destroyed.

The plan proceeds: Adam secretly marries Mimi and they go away to the Isle of Man. On their return, Sir Nathaniel reveals that the White Worm seems to know the secret; drawing the curtain, he shows Adam the sinister green glow from Diana's grove.

Adam and Sir Nathaniel investigate the glow, finally seeing the White Worm - revealed as a vast snake - in the woods. They run.

The Saltons and Sir Nathaniel receive an invitation to tea at Lady Arabella's house. Cautious but hoping to gain some information, they go. Attempts are made to trap them, first by filling the room with smoke, then putting out the lights, but they escape.

Adam gets a strange letter from Lady Arabella asking for his help in selling her house. He decides to buy it himself, Sir Nathaniel having deduced that the White Worm is white through burrowing through valuable china clay deposits. His purchase is immediately expedited through lawyers, and Adam and Sir Nathaniel make plans to destroy the Worm by blocking the tunnels with sand so that it can't escape, then dynamiting it.

As the sand-and-dynamite setup is prepared, Adam has a chat with Lady Arabella, who asks if he cuuriosity can be satisfied as to the depth of the well. Adam gets a reel of piano wire to sound it. At Mercy Farm, Lilla is alone, and Caswall visits; he arrives and recommences the psychic staring. Mimi turns up in time to drive him away, just as Lilla collapses.

Mimi finds Lilla is dead. She goes to the Castle to confront Caswall, who warns her against such accusations, so she goes home. Later she follows Lady Arabella to the Castle.

Not knowing where Lady Arabella is hiding, Mimi arrives at the Castle to find Caswall staring at the growing thunderstorm. He asks her to accompany her to the roof, where he is experimenting with his kite. He reveals himsef as totally barking:

"Come to me! You shall see now what you are despising, what you are warring against. All that you see is mine--the darkness as well as the light. I tell you that I am greater than any other who is, or was, or shall be. When the Master of Evil took Christ up on a high place and showed Him all the kingdoms of the earth, he was doing what he thought no other could do. He was wrong--he forgot _Me_. I shall send you light, up to the very ramparts of heaven. A light so great that it shall dissipate those black clouds that are rushing up and piling around us. Look! Look! At the very touch of my hand that light springs into being and mounts up--and up--and up!"

Lady Arabella, hiding nearby, decides that she'll kill him. She unhooks the reel carrying the kite wire, and unravels it behind her as she goes back to Diana's Grove, knowing he will follow it. There she awaits him:

She tore off her clothes, with feverish fingers, and in full enjoyment of her natural freedom, stretched her slim figure in animal delight. Then she lay down on the sofa--to await her victim! Edgar Caswall's life blood would more than satisfy her for some time to come.

Mimi escapes from the tower roof by shooting the gate lock. She runs home to tell Adam and Sir Nathaniel, who notice the wire leading to Diana's Grove. Suddenly there's a huge explosion: lightning has struck the kite, destroying the Castle and presumably killing Caswell, conducting along the wire and setting off the dynamite under Diana's Grove. They go there to find the house destroyed and the remains of the White Worm and Lady Arabella amid the ruins. All is well, and Sir Nathaniel says:

"We know, my boy," he said, "that the unfortunate Lady Arabella is dead, and that the foul carcase of the Worm has been torn to pieces--pray God that its evil soul will never more escape from the nethermost hell."

Old Mr Salton recommends that Adam and Mimi go on a well-earned honeymoon.

Where to start? As is obvious and well-known, it's based on the Lambton Worm legend, and that's the chief point of interest. The book is full of "information dumps" of back-story, especially from Sir Nathaniel. Richard Salton plays so little part that you wonder why he's even in the novel and why Stoker didn't just conflate his character with Sir Nathaniel. The motivations of the villains are confused. The heroes are geeky, and there's a kind of Buffy/anime flavour to the story: amid horrific life-and-death struggles, the characters persist in having normal polite dealings with each other when not fighting. The book is thoroughly racist in its assumptions and language: Mimi is feisty from being half-Burmese, Caswall is dominant through being of Roman stock, and Oolanga is the scum of the earth for being African. There are strong resonances with Dracula: the psychic dominance of Caswell like Dracula, the knowledgeable mentor like Van Helsing; the heroine's expendable sidekick like Lucy; the marriage like that of Harker and Mina.

See Lair of the White Worm – From Novel to Film at Cinefantastique for a good summary and critique of the many plot weaknesses - not the least being how Adam continues to have polite dealings with Lady Arabella after she has shot one of his mongooses, probably strangled the second, and torn in half the third.

I persisted with the book because I liked Dracula and The Jewel of the Seven Stars and was expecting equal quality. But it was Stoker's last book, and I strongly suspect his valves were sticking. He wrote it in March-June 1911 when in poor financial circumstances and failing health from Bright's disease (he died in April 1912). Bram Stoker and the man who was Dracula (Barbara Belford, Da Capo Press, 2002) mentions that in February 1911 he applied for, and received, a grant from the Royal Literary Fund. He cited the aftermath of a paralytic stroke in 1906 and a breakdown from overwork in 1910. This all probably explains the book's incoherence. However, in a strange way it's pathologically interesting.

There's an excellent paper online, Objectifying Anxieties: Scientific Ideologies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Lair of the White Worm (Diane Long Hoeveler, Érudit, Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 44, November 2006), that explores the Victorian "weird science" and social anxieties floating around in The Lair of the White Worm: "racial theories, physiognomy, criminology, brain science, and sexology":

For Stoker, the real threat of devolutionary power is clearly represented in the separate creation of the monstrous female, an immortal lamia who feeds on the whole bodies of her victims, not just their blood. Consider how Sir Nathaniel describes Lady Arabella March: "a woman, with all a woman’s wisdom and wit, combined with the heartlessness of a cocotte and the want of principle of a suffragette" but with the "reserved strength and impregnability of a diplodocus". Apparently, the woman demanding equality was an evolutionary aberration, a freak of nature, so monstrous that she could only be represented by a sickeningly immortal white worm who swallows her victims whole.

Another paper, Tropical Ovaries: Gynecological Degeneration and Lady Arabella's "Female Difficulties" in Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm (Piya Pal-Lapinski, in Women's Experience of Modernity, 1875-1945, Leslie W. Lewis, Ann L. Ardis, JHU Press, 2003), similarly makes a strong case for the imagery of the book reflecting a variety of anxieties about race, health and female degeneration current when Stoker wrote it.

While it probably wouldn't have been what Stoker wanted, I think Ken Russell's 1988 comedy horror adaptation was the best thing to do with the material, and a deal of the undercurrents of the book - particularly its mix of horror and sexuality - make it into the film. It's seldom on TV, but I think it's much under-rated; for critical analysis, see page 278 onward in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (Joseph Lanza, Chicago Review Press, 2007). One of the film's many internal allusions is the D'Ampton Worm song (video unfortunately not embeddable) which is a variant on CM Leumane's Lambton Worm folk song.

Out of interest, the lyrics to Lair of the White Worm, by the Dutch metal group God Dethroned, are quite an accurate synopsis of the book. See Bram Stoker Online, Project Gutenberg for other Stoker works.

PS: a minor puzzle. Did Stoker have any particular location in mind for The Lair of the White Worm? Sir Nathaniel's description at the beginning of Chapter III - here - along with other clues such as the arrival via Stafford, the easy access to Liverpool, and Mr Salton's comment...

My old friend, Sir Nathaniel de Salis, who, like myself, is a free-holder near Castra Regis--his estate, Doom Tower, is over the border of Derbyshire, on the Peak

put it somewhere on the eastern or north-eastern border of Derbyshire. But though it doesn't fit geographically, much of the location description ties in nicely with the Castleton / Great Ridge area, with its multiple peaks, Peveril Castle and Iron Age fort.

PPS Holly Voley's Pamela Colman Smith site has the illustrations for the 1911 edition; I love the somewhat naive style.
- Ray


  1. An almost non sequiter to take your mind off your loss ... as a child I devoured the entire output of M Pardoe. My favourites were the Argle books, which features a small boy with the knack of dragging his siblings and teacher off into the past ... but there was also another set starring Bunkle, a wartime boy who got into adventures of the Boys Own paper variety and (to finallygt to the point) whose family name was "de Salis".

    I think I shall probably not bother with The lair of the white worm :-)

  2. as a child I devoured the entire output of M Pardoe

    Oddly enough, I went through a phase of devouring the entire output of Ma Pardoe's...

    Bunkle ... "de Salis".

    Never heard of him. Googling ... goodness, they're reprinting them!

  3. RG> ...goodness, they're
    RG> reprinting them!

    Good grief ...

    Prsumably for people of my vintage who want to revisit their childhood ... I much prefer to preserve the rosy glow of distance myself (but I couldn't resist, alas, a look at one of the sample chapters; it was a mistake :-)

  4. Thank you very much for reading that and summarising it so that we don't have to!

    I have a very dim memory of the Ken Russell film, viewed once on late-night TV many years ago, but I was a little taken aback to see from the article you linked to that my memory was quite accurate, and now I'm wondering if it's available on DVD.

  5. Fuchsoid: it looks as if it is on DVD (the trailer is on YouTube).

    I was interested in an aside in the book review I cited: that Stoker had been inspired by a Roman coin found at a dig, one with a serpent-entwined cross as a logo. I can't find any otehr references to this.

  6. I thought the Jewel of the Seven Stars was a little much. For sheer uckiness, which I think Stoker is trying to evoke, Lovecraft is better.