The Lair of the White Worm was published in 1911 and was one of the many novels and novellas that Irish author Bram Stoker wrote after publishing the Gothic-horror classic Dracula. Dracula was published in 1897 and, to date, is considered a cult classic, being the inspiration for several horror and vampire stories since then right up to the twenty-first century. However, other than Dracula, Bram Stoker’s novels and novellas did not do well. Many literary critics and readers down the years state that The Lair of the White Worm is not only one of the worst novels written by Stoker but is also categorized as one of the worst books ever written world-over by someone of the stature of Bram Stoker. However, looking through the book’s narration, plot, and fantastical and sensational ending, one tends to believe that the book was not all that bad a read for modern-day discerning readers. Of course, what is intolerable in the book is its vicious and corrosive racism, making this novel difficult to read.
But if one were to ignore racism, the book has certain interesting aspects. In this age of the Post-Truth and the Social-Cancellation Era, it is becoming difficult for people to realize that even a severely racist book can show certain positive points that can be perceived by the reader and be appreciated. Though the plot is weak, its many loopholes and abysmal holes in the story are plenty, one tends to appreciate the same homeliness or sense of comfort in the reading of the entry of Adam Salton to his family home as one did while reading the introduction of Jonathan Harker to the vampire’s castle in Dracula. We encounter the same comfort level with Stoker’s prose, the same thrill when we read the tale of the woeful worm through the voice of the character Sir Nathaniel, the same fear when we read of the mesmerizing of Lilla, and the same excitement, though a bit more waning, in the many plot twists in the novel which can be worked upon. However, the corrosive, acidic and racist and hurtful words meted out to the character Oolanga are dreadful and instantly kill the reader’s sentiments for the book. But in my opinion, as an Asian myself, I still appreciate this novel and feel it has a lot to offer, and I think this way only for the literary value of the book. One cannot escape the fact that racism, the oldest scourge of our time, is engrained deep within the recesses of our history books, and one cannot hide this truth all the time from the youth; it was there, and we have to deal with it and try to make this world a better place, not rewriting actual truth to what we wish the past should have actually have been like!
The story begins with an elderly gentleman Mr. Richard Salton, who invites his grandnephew to their family home in the rural areas of England to make his home and study the ancient Roman architecture of that region. He asks him to do so because he has learned about the young man’s passion for the same. Adam readily accepts his uncle’s invitation and comes down to Lesser Hill, where the family home is situated. Adam Salton is the grandnephew of Richard Salton and used to reside in West Australia until the arrival of his granduncle’s summons. Adam is a rich man, but he keeps this information from his granduncle because he does not want to seem domineering and also because if he has to stay there for some time, he does not want to attract the wrong female attention over the fact of his immense wealth. He comes and meets both Richard Salton and the elderly gentleman’s good friend and a sort of historian-cum-archaeological expert Sir Nathaniel.
Sir Nathaniel tells Adam the story of the ancient white worm who probably existed in this region of Mercia from the time before the Flood. Thus, it is a primordial beast old enough to be considered for serious study by an archaeologist but too mythical to deem as true. The revelation goes on one by one, peeling out from Sir Nathaniel’s mind as the story progresses. The more the story progresses, the more Sir Nathaniel reveals exciting aspects of the White Worm from the past. Adam listens to Sir Nathaniel pensively and seriously to even consider that the creature may exist presently in their own time and age, which is the late nineteenth or first decade of the twentieth century. Therefore, throughout the text, he keeps an open eye and open mind searching for this creature.
Adam meets the creature very early in the novel, just like Johnathan Harker met Count Dracula, the vampire in Dracula, very easily and quickly with a definitive realization that the Count was evil incarnate. Adam Salton meets Lady Arabella March, a young, widowed woman who is tall, lean, and very much of a prowler. She wears the same white gown wherever she goes, which tightly fits over her body, accentuating her leanness. She belongs to Diana’s Grove, the region almost near Lesser Hill. Diana’s Grove was the stated place where the White Worm was said to have resided and was a very run down and ancient place wherein Lady Arabella lived all alone with her servants. She is in debt and is looking for a suitably wealthy husband to marry and inherit enough wealth to pay off her many debts. Adam Salton believes it is wise enough that he never divulges the secret of his own wealth in Australia, lest such a terrible-looking odious woman like her should follow him about. Lady Arabella, however, chooses the heir of the Caswalls, a certain Edgar Caswall of Castra Regis, to woo with her devotion, adoration, and secret pilgrimages, which sickens Adam Salton but who is happy enough to be away from her clutches. Very early in the text, both Sir Nathaniel and Adam Salton are sure that the White Worm could be none other than Lady Arabella, mainly because of the many crevices in her land at Diana’s Grove, especially one deep abyss called ‘the Well’ which Sir Nathaniel believed to be so deep that probably it could house a most gigantically monstrous demon of a worm. Also, the Well stinks of a smell that makes one sick instantly and puts one into a state of emotional and physical ill-health. However, Lady Arabella never seemed disturbed by the smell or pretended to ignore its existence.
Lady Arabella is always dressed in white which Sir Nathaniel believes is due to her form as the worm. She manages to move through the many calcined limestone regions below the surface and tends always to be white. Also, when Lady Arabella first met Adam Salton, near her carriage were sighted three serpents which Lady Arabella warded off but which shocked Richard Salton, Sir Nathaniel, and Adam. This made it sure in the minds of at least Sir Nathaniel and Adam that she indeed was the infamous White Worm. She valued the rights of no human being and only cared about her own needs, much like a loathed worm of hell full of evil and malevolence. Her soft spot was money, and thus at the beginning of the story, she tries to woo Edgar Caswall, newly returned to his family castle Castra Regis to inherit the family property and money and settle down there.
Edgar Caswall inherits a frame, face, and disposition that is fierce, hard-set, ruthless, and hateful. He has inherited these characteristic from his ancestors, all of who were as vicious, cruel, and power-hungry as he was. He is accompanied to Castle Regis in the family home by his African man-Friday Oolanga. Soon after arrival, Edgar is chaperoned by Lady Arabella, but the heir seems more interested in another young lady Lilla of poorer stock. Lilla is a beautiful and fair-skinned young girl who is mesmerized in a literal sense by Edgar, who is a mesmerist like his ancestors. Adam Salton does not fall in love with Lilla but seems disgusted and outraged with the way Edgar Caswall casts his hypnotic spell on Lilla so that she can be totally in his control. Adam instead falls in love with Lilla’s sister Mimi who is of a more tanned complexion than Lilla but is astute and a fighter with a will strong enough to always mess up Edgar Caswall’s mesmerisms with her sister.
All these characters are introduced in the first half of the book at a special party or get-together held in Edgar’s honor by the people of Mercia. However, we, readers, are shocked by the terrible words used in the book to describe the looks of Oolanga the African, trying to denote in a hateful manner that Oolanga’s looks matched his evilness. All this is pure racism and cannot be forgiven on Bram Stoker’s part, especially when he mentions the thoughts of Oolanga’s behavior and looks in the minds and hearts of Adam Salton, Lady Arabella, and Edgar Caswall. However, we cannot ignore that Oolanga is an odious character in the novel who helps his master in mesmerizing Lilla, keeping an eye over the whole region, collecting snakes, and following people about. Adam Salton seems to be more angered at the sight of Oolanga than Lady Arabella. Adam feels that Oolanga is scheming with evil intent with his master, which he witnesses himself two times concerning the mesmerism of Lilla.
Lilla is mesmerized by Edgar twice in her sister Mimi and Adam Salton’s presence. Oolanga has also played a part in standing away and guarding the process of the mesmerism or has acted as a helper of sorts in the act or an evil medium, though the theme is not stressed upon. Lady Arabella, in the second mesmerism, joins the trio to show her solidarity with Edgar Caswall. Adam Salton is disgusted and enraged by the acts committed upon Lilla and is taken up by Mimi’s brave and virtuous actions. He keeps a watch over the wanderings of Oolanga, Lady Arabella, and Edgar Caswall for the sake of Lilla and Mimi Watford.
In jumps a prime set of minor characters vital for the killing of many snakes and mongooses. Adam Salton, a resident of Australia, orders these mongooses with the help of an animal dealer and his secretary. He is aware that only a good mongoose can kill serpents around the place, and initially, the animals kill many snakes, which Adam sees later being carried about by Oolanga. Adam also sees one of his first mongooses attacking Lady Arabella. In contrast, others are charmed by her and then killed in her presence or killed in secret through mysterious snake-like predator acts like body strangulation and crushing of bones. Here we see a tendency of Adam to try natural and full proof methods to get rid of the serpents in Mercia, which shocks Sir Nathaniel and Richard Salton because they all their lives have never seen snakes in Mercia at all until the day they met Lady Arabella in her carriage of course. Just like in Dracula, scientific methods are used to determine whether the situation in Diana’s Grove is of a more earthly origin.
After the King Cobra killer mongooses of Adam Salton are killed, and the sighting of a sky full of dark birds in the vicinity, Adam and Sir Nathaniel realize that not only danger but even a terrible evil is afoot. But they are ready to lose their lives to save the innocent Watford family from the destruction heading their way, either in the form of a mesmerist like Edgar Caswall or a horrific demon-like creature Lady Arabella March.
With the arrival of the sky full of birds, Edgar Caswall wishes to scare them away from destroying the land of Mercia and mainly to keep them away from his property on Castra Regis, and so he does the oddest thing possible; he flies a giant kite! He lets loose a giant Chinese kite into the air, which scares the birds away, but seems to now madden and mesmerize Edgar Caswall himself. Note that we readers would normally not be so frightened or horrified with tales of mesmerism, but mesmerism is deemed very un-Christian and un-Godly because of the mesmerist invading the privacy of the victim and shutting off the victim’s own will that is the cause of Bram Stoker’s abhorrence for the occult power. In a way, this giant kite now mysteriously mesmerizes Edgar Caswall to induce him to act more cruelly, be full of pride, and think about nothing but his own self-interests, which comes out as very mysterious. Notice that Oolanga does not care much for the kite but is busy in an amorous quest of his own.
Oolanga falls madly in love with Lady Arabella. Maybe in a rather sick way, Stoker is trying to indicate that Oolanga’s attraction towards evil was something common to his race, which does not go down well. It is better to think that he, as an individual fell in love with a woman who abhorred the very sight of him. She ridicules and insults him brutally and viciously, indicating that she rejected him because of his race. Oolanga, however, is besotted with Lady Arabella and is ready to kill her if she does not succumb to his romantic gestures. Ultimately, in Adam Salton’s presence, Lady Arabella in the form of the White Worm kills Oolanga in the Well of her home by crushing and strangulating him like a boa constrictor as she pulls him down into the horrors of the stinking well with her. Unlike Johnathan Harker from Dracula, Adam does not mistake the incident as a dream but is totally aware that the killing of Oolanga happened and that he was a witness to Lady Arabella’s evil deed even though she tried to cover up her action.
Sadly, the killing of an African in England was not deemed a crime, so his disappearance did not stir up the neighbourhood. Adam Salton now only follows the wanderings of Lady Arabella but with much caution. Meanwhile, Adam’s bond with Mimi grows, and he wishes to save her from the clutches of Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswall. So, he marries her overnight. Lady Arabella watches the couple in the form of a snake with green eyes, and to escape from her, they try to sail away to Australia. Thus begins a mad chase from Lesser Hill to the ship going to Australia. One reads with excitement as Adam Salton and Mimi are followed by a monstrosity of a giant white water snake with green eyes as sighted by the people on board. The green eyes of the beast are none other than the green eyes of Lady Arabella March in her true form of a primeval white gigantic worm.
During the course of events, Lilla is visited by Edgar Caswall, who, because of his last mesmerism act, kills Lilla. Lady Arabella puts her estate Diana’s Grove for sale, which is bought immediately by Adam Salton so that he can erase the lair of the White Worm from the face of the earth. He wishes to do so as he tells Sir Nathaniel by filling the Well in which Oolanga was murdered with sand and dynamite of vast quantities and then blowing up the whole region. Adam and Mimi suddenly return to Lesser Hill despite their earlier dramatic get-away to purchase Diana’s Grove on the advice of Sir Nathaniel. Mimi, because of her sister’s tragic death, confronts Edgar Caswall at Castle Regis as his sister’s murderer.
Edgar, meanwhile, has discovered a mysterious treasure chest of mesmerizing tools that belonged to his ancestor, which he procured from the great Mesmer. This chest contained tools of mesmerism which were used by Edgar Caswall when he was in a semi-hypnotic state. During his stay at Castle Regis, Edgar had sent several electrical messages using these tools to the gigantic kite. He kept increasing the frequency of the electrical messages, runner or power until the day of a terrible storm. Lightning was seen in the sky, and yet the maddened and prideful Edgar Caswall did not take down the kite because he was obsessed with it. It is on this stormy night that Mimi confronts Edgar. Without her knowing, Lady Arabella has managed to follow her and overhears the conversation between the old foes. Lady Arabella sees the wire of the kite and, in a foolish act, pulls it with her all the way to Diana’s Grove to measure the depth of the Well. She falls asleep on a couch near this wire in the Well.
On hearing about the giant kite being out even on such a terribly stormy night, Adam warns Mimi of the terrible danger Edgar Caswall was in and whoever else had stolen the wire of the kite. They try running away from the situation but later decide to face it, stating that they would do so even if it were the last thing they were doing on this earth for the sake of their loved ones. That night, lightning does strike. The Magnesium flares played around with by the insane Edgar Caswall on the wire or string of the kite ignites, and one by one Castle Regis and Diana’s Grove is blown up and charred in a dramatic, theatrical sensational way. This ending seems to give glory to the genius of Bram Stoker though the reader also realizes that the writer leaves several loopholes and unfinished gaps in the plot of the main story that never gets sorted out at all. A series of blasts kill Edgar Caswall or rather chars him, while a great blood-curdling shriek echoes throughout Diana’s Grove as the White Worm is burnt part by part.
The White Worm’s actual form now is graphically described in gory and gross detail by Bram Stoker. It is a huge beast-like worm with a body of gross and bloody flesh that bursts into several stinking pieces or chunks by the blast. The rest of the worm lies burning, and its remaining flesh gives out blood-curdling sounds as the burning of rotting flesh continues under the earth like the boiling of lava. Adam Salton and Mimi witness all this from a distance away from the victims and are glad that they and their loved ones were ultimately saved from the evil plaguing their land.
Adam puts Mimi to bed while he and Sir Nathaniel go and investigate the Well and see the charring and boiling blood in the deep crevice, or rather abyss. The stink from the Well is filthier than anything they have ever smelt in their whole lives. It is now confirmed that Lady Arabella indeed was the White Worm of Ancient Roman mythology of the land of Mercia.
The story was easy to read, but the plot holes, loopholes, and many unfinished sub-plots stare out at the reader. Bram Stoker focused too much on his research on a place’s history and past geography in his novels and novellas, which sometimes did not come out very well. His emphasis on the history of the White Worm and not on the book’s plot can create difficulty in following the story. One stark ‘hole’ in the plot is the significance of the Chinese kite itself: What was its real significance, and why after the introduction of the giant kite does the Edgar Caswall and Lilla Watford story get paused for the greater part of the novel? The giant kite also seems to be an excellent way to end the tale of the White Worm but is weak as a theme, especially as it does not convince the reader that Edgar Caswall can be so taken up with himself that he does not realize he is creating a lightning hazard with the kite! Also, one tends to believe that in this part of the text, there could be a missing chapter or two that solves the giant kite’s riddle and what exactly is the part played by Mesmer’s chest full of mesmerist equipment.
Sir Nathaniel seems like Van Helsing from Dracula, the voice of wisdom, knowledge, and practical thought. Compared to Van Helsing, Sir Nathaniel’s role in The Lair of the White Worm is minimal and more of an intellectual armchair one than the man of action we know Van Helsing to be. Maybe if Sir Nathaniel’s and Mr. Richard Salton’s role in this text had to be increased, the plot would probably have been tighter and faster-paced. However, as an armchair intellectual and adventurer in words, Sir Nathaniel does a good enough job of convincing the reader. Mr. Richard Salton is not focused upon at all after the first few chapters of the book, which was a point lacking in the plot; after all, it was he who called Adam Salton to Mercia in the first place!
I would have loved to have seen more of Oolanga because he seems to be more self-assured, daring, unconventional, determined, and a good mesmerist-cum-medium. Indeed, if you remove piece by piece all the racial slurs against Oolanga by the highly prejudiced Bram Stoker, we get a compelling and remarkable character. His daring to propose to a European woman breaks all conventions and was a bold act on his part. By the vicious language used by Lady Arabella in degrading Oolanga, we get a clearer picture or a subtle hint that in that confrontation, it was Lady Arabella who was proving to be the true inhuman cold-blooded creature rather than the vociferous Oolanga. When Lady Arabella ridicules Oolanga’s proposal in the presence of Edgar Caswall, and they have a good laugh about it, it shows yet again how inhumane and wretched they too were as people – or creatures rather!
The book does not mention about any other White Worm in the vicinity of Diana’s Grove, but the mongooses kill several snakes in that region. Are we to believe that they were the ordinary serpents of that region or White Worms themselves? That is not cleared up in the book.
Otherwise, the novel is a good enough historical curiosity of that period but which is not as gripping or powerful as Dracula.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing Irish writer Bram Stoker’s novel The Lair of the White Worm. If you are interested in reading more classic horror books which are abridged and adapted for the twenty-first-century reader, especially children, then you can check out my abridgment of Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving or The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. I hope to read and review more Classic fiction books in the coming days. I hope to read and analyze more of Bram Stoker’s works soon.
If you are interested in more book reviews, book analysis, short-story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check the products page of this blog or on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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