LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM was Bram Stoker’s final novel, published the year prior to his death. Like DRACULA, the author’s most famous work, LAIR drew upon archaic folklore, specifically the Celtic story of the Lambton Worm, a tiny creature that grows to the size of a rampaging dragon. Onto this slender folktale Stoker grafted a shapeshifter story, in which a monstrous worm, a survival of ancient times, somehow gains the ability to take on the form of a human woman.
Had Stoker focused upon this intriguing presence, LAIR might have been one of his finest works, as well as an anodyne to his next-to-last book, THE LADY OF THE SHROUD, a dull Ruritanian romance with mild Gothic touches. Instead, LAIR is a jumble of mismatching story-tropes, some of which possess great mythic potential, while others merely serve to express contemporary prejudices about race and sexuality. LAIR is still better than SHROUD, in the sense that chaos can be more entertaining than predictability.
Perhaps because Stoker was already ill when he penned LAIR, the book’s plot wanders all over the place. Yet the lack of a rigorous plot is probably less injurious than the thinness of all of the characters, even though the reader will observe Stoker re-using some of the character-tropes he employed so memorably in DRACULA. The dramatis personae include:
ADAM SALTON is a young Englishman long absent from his native land. He returns in order to be groomed as the heir to an estate in a territory known by the Roman-era name of Mercia. Though Adam meets with the current lord of the estate, his grand-uncle, most of his conversations in the novel take place with NATHANIEL DE SALIS, a neighboring landowner who knows much of the involved history and folklore of the land and its various peoples.
One of his neighbors is LADY ARABELLA MARCH, occupying an estate known as “Diana’s Grove.” For almost half the novel, she appears to be an ordinary human woman with a few odd habits, and at first her only motivation is to make a good marriage to allay the debts of her estate. She wishes to marry—
EDGAR CASWALL, another local lord who, like Adam, has come to his estate “Castra Regis,’ after having it managed for years in his absence. However, he shows nearly no interest in Arabella, focusing all of his attention on—
LILLA WATFORD, one of two granddaughters of another local landowner. She has no interest in Caswall, and she receives help against his predacious intentions by her cousin MIMI WATFORD, whom Adam eventually marries.
Parallels with DRACULA should be obvious. Adam is a forthright young man like Jonathan Harker, and Nathaniel plays the part of Van Helsing, instructing the young man on the theory of ancient “wyrms.” Lilla and Mimi emulate Lucy and Mina beyond the resemblance of their initials, for Lilla is as doomed as Lucy while Mimi is a more defiant figure like Mina. Yet Stoker strayed from the parallel by splitting the book between two villainous presences. Whereas DRACULA centers upon the depredations of one monstrous antagonist, a true homme fatale, in LAIR Stoker includes a human homme fatale and an inhuman femme fatale. Yet Stoker doesn’t succeed in making either of these inimical characters a tenth as interesting as the vampire count.
Neither of the villains possesses a clear goal. When Caswall is introduced, Stoker draws parallels between the lord and the ancient Romans who conquered Great Britain for a time, and who left their stamp upon the territory of Mercia. One of Caswall’s ancestors studied under Mesmer, the father of hypnotism, and somehow Caswall seems to have “inherited” an intrinsic ability to dominate the wills of others. However, Caswall only demonstrates this talent three times in the novel, always while visiting the home of the Watfords. During these visits, while pretending to make small talk, Caswall attempts to mentally dominate the weak-willed Lilla. It’s not even clear whether or not the cold-hearted aristocrat intends to make Liila into either his wife or his mistress, for every time he’s there, so is Mimi, who manages to thwart Caswall with her own willpower. The lord doesn’t make any other attempts, even financially based, to control Lilla, and for most of the novel he does nothing but to go fly a kite. In one of Stoker’s oddest conceits, Mercia becomes victimized by flocks of migrating birds, mostly doves and pigeons, with a strong implication that they’re reacting against the presence of a serpentine “devil.” To scare the birds away, Caswall creates a kite in the shape of a hawk. The kite succeeds in its scarecrow purpose, but for vague reasons Caswall becomes preoccupied with this new hobby. He starts sending “messages” up the kite-string, and Stoker doesn’t really explain this, though given the conservative Christian sentiments expressed throughout the book, it may be that Caswall’s activity is somehow seen as blasphemy against Heaven.
But if Caswall ends up seeming more dotty than dangerous, Lady Arabella comes off as a monster without a cause. For half the novel, Stoker plays it cagey. Arabella has a few odd snakelike aspects—for instance, when Adam brings in mongeese to exterminate ordinary snakes, the mongeese show unreasoning hostility toward the noblewoman. Then, in the latter half of the novel, the author drops the whole megillah on the reader. Arabella may look like a human being, and she even married a now-deceased lord in order to gain control of Diana’s Grove. But in reality, she’s a giant worm who has lived beneath Diana’s Grove for thousands of years. Though the Nathaniel character goes into great detail to justify the existence of such an antique survival, no one in the novel explains how a giant worm can change into a human woman, either via biology or Satanic magic.
But as noted earlier, Arabella, like Caswall, has no raison d’etre. In DRACULA, Stoker gave his royal Rumanian a forceful characterization, so that he continued to dominate the novel despite his being offstage for most of the narrative. But Stoker refuses to tell the reader anything about the internal workings of Arabella’s mind, except in one section, where she’s seen to share the xenophobic prejudices of contemporaneous Englishmen (more on that later). What does the Worm-Woman want? The readers won’t be able to tell from what Stoker provides them. The author strains to convince readers that the White Worm is a biological creature—she’s even “white” because of burrowing through caves of white clay—but he never bothers to address the question of what the Worm feeds on to keep its bulk together. Stoker might’ve done better to make the Worm a creation of The Devil himself, for certainly the creature’s associations with the underworld give her a diabolical aspect. Though a serpent-woman would seem to suggest all sorts of psychosexual undertones, Arabella is never a sexual threat to anyone, though it's hard to believe that Stoker didn’t name his protagonist in keeping with the associations between a certain serpent and the original “Adam.” There’s one scene in which Adam convinces himself to marry Mimi because he thinks the act of marriage will protect Mimi from Arabella somehow, but Arabella makes no moves on Adam, and maybe the marriage is meant to protect Adam from some concealed lust on his part. After the marriage, Arabella does try to kill both Adam and Mimi, but the motivation behind the attempt is to keep Adam from revealing her snaky secrets. Because Arabella is such a black hole as a character, Stoker has her do things that make no sense, just to fill plot-holes. The worst appears at the conclusion, when the two villains bring destruction on themselves. Caswall attaches his kite to his mansion by a metal wire, insuring that Castra Regis will be destroyed in a thunderstorm. Adam witnesses Arabella extending the metal line to her own home—which means that the storm’s fury will destroy both her and Diana’s Grove. Why Stoker didn’t just have his protagonist do this, instead of one of the villains, is more than I can speculate upon.
Backtracking a bit, the only time Arabella shows real emotion is when she apparently forgets she’s an inhuman creature and reacts with indignation when a crude African servant dares to propose lovemaking to a “white woman.” Said servant is Oolanga, brought to Castra Regis from Africa by Caswall, though it’s never clear what the black man’s duties for Caswall might be. Oolanga is a former “witch finder,” and he shows a propensity for “sniffing out” scenes of death past and present. Stoker makes no bones about his contempt for Negroes, calling Oolanga (among other things) “ostensibly human,” while Adam jokingly calls the servant a “Christy Minstrel.” Presumably this is wishful thinking, because the death-obsessed Black African is certainly not as subservient as a character in a minstrel-show, given that he tries to initiate sex with a woman above his station. In fact, after Arabella scornfully refuses Oolanga’s suit, Adam and Arabella are briefly allied against the violent African, and Adam first witnesses Arabella’s transformation when Arabella drags Oolanga down to death in her underworld. Oddly, though Stoker can’t stand Black people, he does make Mimi “half-Burmese,” though apparently the author only did this so that he could work in a reference to Burmese snake-charmers.
There are a few powerful moments in LAIR. One is the “plague of birds,” of doves and pigeons whose “cowled” appearance Stoker likens to the habits of Christian nuns (even though Stoker was raised as a Protestant). Nathaniel’s ruminations about the Celtic traditions about underworld dragons and “worms” are modestly compelling, Stoker was clearly trying to construct a multi-leveled metaphor regarding human beings being seduced, if not by Satan himself, by devilish impulses. Yet, to invert William Blake’s encomium on Milton, it seems Stoker was too much “of the angel’s party” to really delve into the realms of the forbidden, particularly that of serpentine sexuality. Perhaps the shadow of DRACULA doomed Stoker’s last novel, making it impossible for him to venture ever again into those realms of transgressive feeling.