Imperial fiction: The Lair of the White Worm

Already we are mixed up in robbery, and probably murder, but – a thousand times worse than all the crimes in the calendar – in an affair of ghastly mystery which has no bottom and no end – with forces of the most unnerving kind, which had their origin in an age when the world was different from the world which we know. We are going back to the origin of superstition – to an age when dragons tore each other in their slime.
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm, 1911

Readers of Dracula will hardly have forgotten the creepy thrill of that weird vampire story. The new ‘horror’ is a gigantic white worm which lives underground and can assume the shape of a woman in order to lure its victims to its stronghold. This theme is quite after Mr Bram Stoker’s own heart, and he handles it with his usual skill.
Daily Mirror, 1911

The Lair of the White Worm is so critically derided a novel, has such an appalling reputation, that it’d be a pleasure to reclaim it as a misunderstood masterpiece. I regret to say that that option is not available: it really is a stinker. But it’s quite intriguing in parts…

The story’s set in the Peak District, and is seemingly in the present day, judging by internal dating, though there’s no sign of modernity here: none of the telegraphs or recordings found in Dracula. Nor is there any sign of the apparatus of the state: no police, no magistrates. Instead there are the occupants of three great houses, locked in a private battle with each other.

In the good corner are Adam Salton, newly arrived from Australia, and his great-uncle, together with an antiquary, Sir Nathaniel de Salis. In the bad corner is Edgar Caswall, newly arrived from Africa and a thoroughly nasty piece of work; he inspires ‘a feeling of repugnance’ in the Saltons, with an appearance that is ‘so hard, so ruthless, so selfish, so dominant’. And in the thoroughly wicked corner is a predatory young widow, Lady Arabella Marsh, ‘clad as usual in tight-fitting white, which accentuated her thin, sinuous figure’.

There’s a legend round these parts of a monster, a subterranean-dwelling giant snake or dragon, known as the White Worm. It’s been here since prehistoric times, long before humans arrived. Can it be that this ancient serpent survives? Can it be that it is able to take human shape? Sir Nathaniel believes so. He tells Adam that as a girl Lady Arabella had nearly died after receiving a poisonous bite while out walking in the woods. Miraculously, she recovered but, ‘to the horror of her people, she developed a terrible craving for cruelty, maiming and injuring birds and small animals – even killing them’. She had subsequently married, but her husband had died in mysterious circumstances. Was it suicide? wonders Sir Nathaniel. Did he stumble on the horrific truth about his young wife? Because he, Sir Nathaniel, has certainly done so.

‘Putting together many small matters that have come to my knowledge,’ he reveals, ‘I have come to the conclusion that the foul White Worm obtained control of her body, just as her soul was leaving its earthly tenement.’ This is blood-curdling stuff, but he insists it’s true: ‘The once beautiful human body of Lady Arabella is under the control of this ghastly White Worm’.

And how does Adam respond to this sensational revelation?

‘But what can we do, sir – it seems a most difficult problem.’

The banal bathos of that response is one of the reasons why this is such a bad book. It’s not just that the writing is so stilted, more that it suggests Stoker doesn’t know what he’s doing. Really, if you’re going to tell tales like this, of prehistoric horror erupting into the modern world, we need an appropriately shocked reaction from the characters. They can’t just scratch their heads and say: my word, but it’s a bit of a puzzler.

But that’s typical of the book. Everything is so absurdly unreal, yet everyone accepts it as being normal. If you have a visitor for afternoon tea, you might end up fighting ‘some sort of mesmeric or hypnotic battle’, and no one will mention that this isn’t how such social engagements generally work out. Even when someone is killed, everyone else pretty much takes it in their stride; certainly there’s no talk of calling in the authorities. And all of it is so prosaic: there’s no sense of hallucinatory dream-world.

Further, there’s absolutely no sense of pacing. Moments that should be big set-pieces are hurried through in a couple of pages, to be immediately followed by another, and then another. Which doesn’t make it exciting and incident-packed, just shallow, repetitive and wearing.

Every dozen pages or so, a completely new element is added to the story, seemingly at random, and certainly with no sense of continuity with what went before or what is yet to come. Why is there ‘a plague of birds’? What is the significance of the mysterious trunk that was passed down from Franz Mesmer? What part will the ancient Egyptian god Bes play in this tale? We never find out. For a book of just 55,000 words, it has a shocking lack of focus.

All of which is a crying shame. Because in another context – by which I mean ‘in other hands’ – there’d be real potential in reviving the struggle between Christianity and paganism, complete with Anglo-Saxon mythology, and mixing it all up in a magical melting pot of superstitions.

See, for example, the collection of ‘ancient Egyptian relics from tombs and mummies; curios from Australia, New Zealand, and the South Seas; idols and images – from Tartar ikons to ancient Egyptian, Persian, and Indian objects of worship; objects of death and torture of American Indians’. This is great stuff, promising a nightmarish lack of logic. And there are intriguing hints of themes that could have been expanded, as with the decision reached by our heroes: ‘as we have to protect ourselves and others against feminine nature, our strong game will be to play our masculine against her feminine.’

But none of it amounts to anything. It’s just a mess.

The reviews at the time were mostly indulgent, but some were unusually hostile. ‘All the magic has gone,’ said one paper. ‘This futile story of the stupendous White Serpent is as a drama played without music, scenery, costumes, or footlights. We are genuinely sorry that Bram Stoker should have written it.’ Another said it was an ‘incoherent nightmare’, in which: ‘You are continually being led up to expect some horrible catastrophe and as continually being disappointed.’

It was Stoker’s twelfth and final novel, published in November 1911, just five months before his death at the age of sixty-four, but there are no signs of literary maturity. If you were told these were the feverish scribblings of a moderately precocious teenager, you’d believe it.

It’s entirely appropriate, therefore, that the movie adaptation, which came in 1988, should be the work of Ken Russell, the most gleefully adolescent of Britain’s great directors. Not that he paid much attention to the story, mind. But he did get a young Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi together, which was nice, and he did encourage Amanda Donahue to be fabulously excessive.

There’s one other aspect of the novel I wanted to mention: the overt racism.

Edgar Caswall has come back from Africa with a black servant named Oolanga. His face is that of an ‘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’. He is said to be ‘quite a great person in the nigger world of the African West Coast’, he’s ‘an Obi-man’.

Our heroes take against him. Adam says he looks like ‘a malignant devil’ and is probably worse:

‘You might think to look at him that you could measure in some way the extent of his vileness; but it would be a vain hope. Monsters such as he is belong to an earlier and more rudimentary stage of barbarism. He is in his way a clever fellow – for a nigger; but is none the less dangerous or the less hateful for that.’

What to make of this? Up to a point, we can see Oolanga as the mirror image of Lady Arabella – ‘be she woman or snake or devil’ – who also represents ancient evil and is also described in demonic terms (though not as often). Caswall’s grandfather was said to have ‘sold his soul to the Evil One’ as well, so Oolanga doesn’t have a monopoly on the infernal arts.

But there’s more than that. Oolanga has a different status to the others. When Lady Arabella complains of his behaviour, Caswall replies:

‘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!’
‘But what about the law, Mr Caswall?’
‘Oh, the law doesn’t concern itself much about dead niggers.’

Now, Caswall is a colonial adventurer, and in isolation this exchange might be seen as a vicious satire of his attitudes. Similarly, her subsequent response: ‘I don’t love niggers any more than you do.’ After all, she’s no more sympathetic a character than is he.

But that won’t wash. The narrator – so ludicrously omniscient as to sabotage the book’s integrity still further – clearly shares the opinion of all the other characters. All agree that Oolanga is beyond the pale, and he’s the one character into whose head we do not see. Even for a Stoker apologist (should there be such a one), there’s no way round the racism of the portrayal.

What I find intriguing is that my paperback edition, published by Arrow in 1960, was already sensitive enough to linguistic concerns that it made changes to the passages I’ve just quoted. In this version, Oolanga was ‘quite a great person in the world of his origin’, and is ‘in his way a clever fellow’, without racial qualification. And in the exchanges between Caswall and Lady Arabella, the word ‘nigger’ is changed to ‘negro’.

But a few pages later, when Lady Arabella meets Oolanga, the original text is retained. He says he has a gift for her:

‘Is this why you want to see me?’ He nodded. ‘Then come round to the other door. But be quiet. I have no desire to be seen so close to my own house in conversation with a – a – a nigger like you!’
She had chosen the word deliberately. She wished to meet his passion with another kind. Such would, at all events, help to keep him quiet. In the deep gloom she could not see the anger which suffused his face. Rolling eyeballs and grinding teeth are, however, sufficient signs of anger to be decipherable in the dark. She moved round the corner of the house to her right. Oolanga was following her, when she stopped him by raising her hand.
‘No, not that door,’ she said; ‘that is not for niggers. The other door will do well enough for you!’

This is powerful stuff, providing a shock that’s much more effective than the unrevised version. There’s a parallel in Sapper’s Jim Maitland (1923), where the word is used similarly to make a point of contempt. ‘She had chosen the word deliberately’ is in the original, but Stoker has already wasted its potency. It is the one time that it is said directly to Oolanga himself, and his anger makes it plain that he understands the insult. But any impact is fatally undermined by the rest of the text.

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