Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lair Of The White Worm!

Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm is one of those stories I've been meaning to read for decades, but for whatever reason never got around to. I recently corrected that oversight. Having recently re-read Dracula and The Jewel of the Seven Stars, it's interesting to compare this last Stoker novel to its predecessors. To begin with, it's not as good. The immediate weakness is the narrative point of view which is not anyone of the characters, but rather the sturdy omniscient. This gives us ready access to the details, but undermines the tension of the unfolding events.

Briefly those events are these. A young man named Adam Salton inherits an old estate and finds that his neighbors include two beautiful young girls named Lilla and Mimi, cousins by complicated family back story, but essentially sisters. One of these he falls in love with of course. There is another new man in the community Edgar Caswell, the Lord of the surrounding territory who returns to his family's estates after generations of neglect and proves to be an odd, eccentric, and dangerous fellow. He is accompanied by a black African sorcerer named Oolonga to boot. The oddest neighbor though is Lady Arabella Marsh, who it turns out is the titular White Worm herself.

The biggest weakness in this peculiar and at times fascinating tale is the almost complete lack of suspense. The mystery of the White Worm is revealed almost immediately and as fantastic as the notion is that a mere woman can transform into a gigantic ancient monster, it is swallowed fairly readily by our hero thanks to the help of Nathaniel Adam, a family friend and a man of no limited experience. The two of them conspire to end the threat of the Worm which seems to be preying on the surrounding populace, though admittedly at an astonishingly low rate. They constantly see the slithering threat, but seem strangely unmoved by it.

Dealing with the threat of Lady Arabella is often delayed so that our heroes can tussle with Caswell, a man overcome with the notions of Mesmerism and who seems intent on bending Lilla to his will.  Arabella wants the rich Lord for herself, and so she too wants Lilla out of the way. The book tumbles along with these basic conflicts for several chapters before finally getting around to a conclusion which does satisfy eventually, though the details are pretty ramshackle in pure terms of plotting. A lot of illogical stuff has to happen for events to coincide as they do. 

I kept thinking as I read the story that it could've been so much better if certain details were not so openly revealed and largely confirmed. The heroes drink down the reality of Arabella in one chapter then seem reluctant to believe it the next. They twiddle their thumbs as danger mounts, though they identify the danger almost immediately. Holding off that identification would've given the story some suspense and made the heroes seem less indifferent to the suffering around them.

There's a lot that's been speculated about this story's ripe symbolism and how it reveals Stoker's fundamental hatred and possible dread of women. There might be something to that, so on that level it might be unsettling. A weird woman who becomes a giant white snake that slithers into a smelly dank well might raise some hackles indeed, but it's just a queasy image in the end and doesn't add up to much. 

This is a nicely lurid story with a proper monster, but sadly the presentation makes a bit of a hash of the ability to fully appreciate what is unfolding.

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