The Lair of the White Worm – Bram Stoker
William Rider and Son – 1911
The 1980s saw a veritable boom of worm horror, but this niche genre had been around for a while before that. Bram Stoker, author of horror classic Dracula, published his The Lair of the White Worm in 1911. I love Dracula, but Stoker’s worm book has the reputation of being one of the worst horror novels ever written. I put it off for a while, but in early December I pulled up my socks and read this crazy mess. I read the original 40 chapter version of the text, not the more widely available, 28 chapter, abridged version from 1925.
First off, I want to provide a summary of what I understood of the story. I might be mistaken on a few points, but I’m confident this is pretty close to what Stoker actually wrote:
Adam, an Australian lad, is summoned to England by his great uncle. They have no other living family, and the uncle wishes to leave his land to his nephew. Adam arrives just before Edgar, another foreign chap who is also returning to his family’s ancestral home.
When Adam is on his way to meet Edgar for the first time, he bumps into Lady Arabella March. She’s an awkward weirdo, and it quickly becomes apparent that she wants to marry Edgar for his land. It’s around this point that Oolanga, Edgar’s servant, is introduced to the story. Oolanga isn’t actually very important to the story, but he is one of the most notable parts of the book. (I’ll explain this later.)
Edgar throws a homecoming party where he and Adam meet two girls named Mimi and Lilla. Adam falls in love with Mimi, and Edgar falls in love with Lilla.
The next day all of these characters meet up for tea. Edgar tries to gain influence over Lilla by staring at her intensely. This, for me, was one of the strangest elements of the book. He doesn’t just look at her while they’re chatting. The entire conversation dies and everyone present becomes involved in a big staring match. Despite her desire to marry him, Arabella joins Edgar’s efforts to stare Lilla down. This part is truly bizarre. It felt like reading a Tim and Eric sketch. The scene ends with Edgar and Arabella sneaking away, but nobody seems to remember what happened and the scene is repeated a few days later. I don’t know. If a creepy man came to my house and stared and me intensely, I probably wouldn’t invite him back.
Adam notices some snakes in the neighbourhood, so he buys a mongoose to kill them. At one point the mongoose sees Arabella and attacks her. She tears it in half.
Oolanga expresses his love for Arabella, but she spurns his advances. Soon thereafter Adam, Arabella and Oolanga are sneakily following each other around a forest, each one unaware that they’re being followed themselves. Arabella leads Oolanga into her house. At some point that I don’t think is actually mentioned in the text, Arabella realises that Adam is present and she asks him for help. It seems as though Stoker had forgotten that Adam was supposed to be hiding during this scene.
Once they’re all in her house, Arabella jumps on Oolanga and they fall down a huge hole. She soon reappears and claims that Oolanga is dead but that she herself had not fallen. She claims she actually ran up the stairs.
Adam goes home and chats with his uncle’s friend. They deduce that Arabella is actually a giant luminous snake from the era of the dinosaurs. This involves some pretty ludicrous reasoning.
While this has all been happening, Edgar, the lad Arabella wants to marry, has been going insane. He builds a giant kite shaped like a hawk and spends his time flying that to scare away birds. He has started to think of himself as a god.
Lady Arabella invites Adam and Mimi over for tea. Then she tries to kill Mimi. On failing to do so she turns into a giant snake and chases the couple all around England.
A few days later, Arabella sends Adam a friendly letter offering to sell her house to him for a low price. He accepts. Once he has taken possession of the house, he fills the basement with dynamite. (He does so because he thinks this is where Arabella sleeps.)
Edgar goes to Lilla’s house for a final staredown. This time the staredown is so intense that Lilla dies.
The ending of the book is quite confusing. Mimi confronts Edgar about killing her cousin. By this time he is fully insane, flying his kite in a thunderstorm and boasting of his own power. Arabella finds the two at the top of the castle. She grabs the very long kite-string and takes it home to her lair, the one Adam has filled with dynamite. When lightning strikes the kite, the current goes through the kite-string then down into the dynamite filled lair. It blows Arabella’s enormous worm body into bloody chunks.
A few issues:
- The mesmeric staring is truly ludicrous.
- The way the characters don’t call each other out for their behaviour is entirely unbelievable.
- The lads figure out that Arabella is a giant shapeshifting snake from the name of her home and the fact that a mongoose attacked her. I did notice that the far shorter 1911 version of the story actually addresses this issue somewhat. In the later version of the story, Arabella is actually seen trying to strangle a child. This makes it very clear that she is actually a dinosaur worm.
- The whole thing of Edgar making the big kite is ridiculous.
- The discussions between Adam and his uncles friend are presented as Socratic dialogues. These are painfully boring passages of creative reasoning.
- Arabella is supposedly an ancient monster, but at one point in the story, she goes to her dad’s house to visit him.
The 1911 version of the text is heavily abridged, but it does contain some additions to the story. Along with the aforementioned child strangulation, there is also a brief section at the end of the newer version which mentions a honeymoon for Mimi and Adam. Also, the 1925 version of the text uses the n-word 23 times while the original version only used it 4 times, and all 4 of these instances were in dialogue. I have read that Stoker himself was not responsible for this change. It’s a bit strange to consider somebody sitting down to edit a book and deciding that it needs fewer pages and more uses of the n-word.
Even in the original version, I found the racism towards Oolanga fairly shocking. He dies around the halfway mark, and the tale could get by without him. People have tried defending Stoker by pointing out that Adam, the books protagonist, does end up married to a person of colour. I don’t think this gets him off the hook. Some of the stuff he writes (even in the original version) is rough.
This is not a good book, but there are occasional moments throughout that suggest that it could have been a great book. I have read that Stoker was going mad with syphilis when he wrote it, and that’s why it’s so mental. I certainly would have liked if the book was better, but I found that the weird problems and lack of cohesion actually made it a fairly interesting read in its own right.
4 thoughts on “Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm”
Racism in older books is always a problem. I am a great admirer of Flann O’Brien but the N word is used at one point in one of his later books and I’ve always found that disappointing in such an intelligent and urbane writer. M.R. James and Graham Greene (in Stamboul Train, if I remember rightly) both have rather unpleasant and stereotypical Jewish characters. Thanks for this overview of The Lair. I have seen the film (which is pretty awful) but I don’t think I’ll bother reading the book, however great my love for Dracula, which I have read many times.
Flann is one of my favourite writers too, but it has been a few years since I read any of his books! Which is the offender?
I’m not 100% sure but I think it’s the Dalkey Archive. It’s in the context of a discussion between de Selby and St Augustine of Hippo, where de Selby says ‘Were you a n*****?’ It’s not one of his best and of course, he re-used lots of bits from The Third Policeman, which at that time was a trunk novel and had never been published. He claimed that the manuscript was lost when it was sitting on the back seat of his car while he was driving through Donegal, somehow came untied and was blown page by page across the landscape! 🙂
I’ve read Lair, and another Stoker novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars, as well as Dracula. I think Stoker never quite realized why Dracula had worked as well as it did, and kept trying to recreate its success. Jewel, and for that matter Lair, both have long static stretches, something Dracula almost never has.
Trilby, which features the hypnotist Svengali, came out in 1894, and either started or popularized a vogue for hypnotism. Invariably, it’s characterized as a battle of wills.
The movie version of Lair departs great from Stoker’s novel. In its own way, it, too is awful, but in a campy, fun way.
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