Friday, 1 January 2010

The Lair of the White Worm

“The Lair of the White Worm” was Bram Stoker’s last novel (first published in 1911, one year before his death). It’s also quite a thin one, to be honest. But that does not necessary have to be bad, there are other great stories told in few words, after all.

The novel features a female villain (just as “The Jewel of Seven Stars”), the Lady Arabella March, who is, some way or another, the human body of the White Worm. The ‘worm,’ of course, is rather a legless, wingless dragon. It’s a monster for which no logical explanation is really offered (there were no snakes that huge around at any time of Earth’s development). It also has everything necessary for a good penny dreadful: a damsel in distress; a dashing, young hero; a secondary villain with a horrible aide; some mentors for the hero; a monster (the worm) and a dangerous villain, the lady herself.

Unlike “Dracula” or “The Jewel of Seven Stars,” “The Lair of the White Worm” is not told in a diary-style. It’s a quite regular third-person perspective, hovering around the main hero of the tale, a young man from Australia named Adam Salton. He has an elderly relative in England who asks him to come for a visit (preferably one lasting for the remainder of the older one’s life). Adam arrives in England and soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous adventure. His love for a young woman from the area (the Damsel in Distress, who else?) pulls him into it, because she is first threatened by the secondary villain (Edgar Caswell, just back from Africa, a rather unsympathetic man with a dark past, a servant well-versed in magic and strong hypnotic powers) and then by the main villain (Lady Arabella / the Worm) herself / itself.

The story itself is not a difficult one. As there’s only one real point of view, it is mostly straightforward. (“Dracula” is much harder to read, because from rather early onwards two and more different plotlines merge in the novel.) The White Worm is a monster (a gigantic serpent or a legless dragon or a left-over dinosaur without legs, whatever you prefer) with no real intellect. The lady is, some way or the other, part of it. She might just be a helper or she might be the human body of the Worm. The story is somewhat shady on that account. Edgar Caswell is a half-crazed, deeply evil person who deserves even more than he gets. In short: the evil characters aren’t really special at all, just your usual bad guys from the period of the gothic novels and serials.

There are quite a few memorable scenes in the story, though. Caswell is slowly becoming obsessed with the huge kite he has put on top of the tower of his home, in order to scare away the birds. The death of the cousin of the Damsel in Distress (which sets her up against Caswell, who’s responsible for it). The death of Caswell’s servant (an African witchdoctor) in the Worm’s lair. The preparations for the demise of the Worm. The trap set out for Mimi (the Damsel in Distress) by Lady Arabella (who, of course, doesn’t succeed). The final demise of the monster. But it’s not a really imaginative or original story.

They even turned it into a movie once (just as there are at least two movie-versions of “The Jewel of Seven Stars”), even though it was never that successful, only uses a few basics of the original story and features some of the most amusing dream sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror movies.

Is it worth reading (if you’re not working on an essay about Stoker)? That depends very much on your taste. It’s a quick read (though a bit out-dated when it comes to the choice of words) and you can read it online, if you like. “Forgotten Books” has both a printed and an online-version of it.

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