Victorian author Bram Stoker holds a prominent place in horror history, all of it due to the publication of a single novel, Dracula, which has remained continuously in print for more than a century, providing a bloody fountain of inspiration for an undying legion of film and television adaptations. When a writer’s work has achieved that kind of longevity, inevitably one wonders: What else did he write? In Stoker’s case, unfortunately, the answer is not a pretty one. As scholar Leonard Wolf (who considers Dracula a masterpiece) noted in Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide, Stoker’s other “novels are not distinguished in any literary sense”; they merely provide “intriguing glimpses into the nether reaches of Stoker’s mind.” Nowhere is this more true than in Stoker’s final novel, Lair of the White Worm – a work so bad that it come close to being the literary equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. It is no wonder that, when Ken Russell adapted the book to the screen in 1988, he treated the material with campy contempt, creating an off-the-wall parody of the horror genre.
It is hard to say exactly what Stoker was thinking when he conceived the story, which is loaded with superfluous characters who disappear and reappear, and with mis-matched plot threads that never tie together. What comes through the text loud and clear, however, is a fear of female sexuality that borders on loathsome disgust and renders the material absolutely fascinating – the book seems tailor made for psycho-analysis, but you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to get a pretty healthy whiff of what lies beneath the surface.
The story follows the non-descript Adam Salton, an orphaned Englishman living in Australia, who is called back to the ancestral estate by his childless Uncle Richard. Salton’s return coincides with another expatriate Englishman returning home, the villainous Edgar Caswall, who does just about everything but twirl his mustache. In the first sign that Stoker has not thought through his plot very carefully, the reader distinctly suspects that Uncle Richard has called Adam home at least partly because he anticipates needing an ally against Caswall, but nothing every comes of this; the near simultaneous return of the two expatriates is just a coincidence.
Caswall is accompanied by a sinister servant, an African named Oolanga, and he is soon being courted by the widowed Lady Arabella Marsh, who hopes a rich husband will help her hold onto her late husband’s expensive property. Lady Arabella turns out to be something much worse than a mere gold-digger; she is actually an ancient, antediluvian monster, a sort of giant snake or worm (the etymology of the word “worm” has its roots in a term meaning “dragon”). In human form she is sinuous and seductive, her charms described in snake-like terms that induce more laughter than fear: her flexible hands wave gently to and fro; the sibilation of her voice suggests a hissing serpent.
Since she is clearly the “White Worm” of the title, you would think Stoker would focus on her, but Stoker refuses to give up on Caswall as the lead villain. Whole chapters are devoted to Caswall’s attempts to open an old chest that his late ancestor brought from France, where it used to belong to Dr. Mesmer (he of mesmerism). Caswall seeks to use mesmeric influence upon Lilla, a young local lady. Why is never explained; we simply assume he is trying to seduce her – which makes it all the more strange when, after his first effort is thwarted by Lilla’s companion Mimi, Lady Arabella offers to help Caswall in his next endeavor (presumably to earn his good favor?). The book descends into complete incredulity when the two young ladies allow Caswall back into the house even though they more or less know what he is up to – a foolish move that results in the Lilla’s death, presumably from exhausting her willpower in the confrontation with Caswall and Arabella.
Fortunatly for the reader, Caswall’s failed effort drives him around the bend and he more or less retreats to the turret of his castle, from which he flies a huge kite, night and day, over the surrounding territory; shaped like a hawk, it scares the local fauna away. (One suspects some kind of metaphor is intended, but what?)
With Caswall out of the way, Lady Arabella moves more toward center stage. In the meantime, Adam’s uncle (who has no other plot function that to get Adam back to England) has moved off stage after introducing his nephew to Sir Nathaniel, the book’s equivalent of Van Helsing, who explains to the young man everything he needs to know to defeat the giant snake. You don’t have to be a trained story analyst to wonder why Stoker did not simply combine Richard and Nathaniel into a single character.
Somewhere along the way, Oolanga mistakenly believes he has information that will enable him to blackmail Lady Arabella into marrying him. Although Arabella is a villain, Oolanga’s proposal is not portrayed as two like-minded schemers joining forces; instead, it is viewed through the prism of class consciousness, in which the upstart negro (well, the book uses the word nigger), is roundly mocked for having aspirations above his station. Stoker even titles the chapter “Oolanga’s Hallucinations,” emphasizing how out of touch with reality his love for Arabella is, and he drives the point home in this passage:
Lady Arabella was not usually a humorous person, but no man or woman of the white race could have checked the laughter which rose spontaneously to her lips. The circumstances were too grotesque, the contrast too violent, for subdued mirth. The man a debased specimen of one of the most primitive races of the earth, and of an ugliness which was simply devilish; the woman of high degree, beautiful, accomplished.
Lady Arabella rebuffs Oolanga, and when he refuses to give up, she drags him to his death in a deep well, the open mouth of which is hidden in the basement of her property. Adam witnesses this event – in fact, he also sees her tear his pet mongoose in half (the second such creature she kills in the story) – and he is properly horrified, yet somehow he manages to maintain cordial public relations with Lady Arabella for the rest of the novel, a development that takes British stiff-upper-lip resolve to ridiculous extremes, with the two characters in some kind of complicit cone of silence regarding the matter. Needless to say, it never occurs to anyone to alert the authorities about Oolanga; after all, who cares about a missing…ahem, negro?
In another inexplicable turn of events, Lady Arabella decides to sell her property to Adam. We suspect she is setting him up for some trap, which never materializes. In an apparently unintended bit of sexual innuendo, she even asks Adam to plum the depths of her well-hole, and he seems happy to comply (an exchange of dialogue that Leonard Wolf found particularly ridiculous). The sale turns out to be merely a lazy plot device to give Adam access to the well so that he can load it with dynamite. (He and Sir Nathaniel have decided that the well is the path Lady Arabella uses to come and go when she is in her giant snake form.)
As if this were not enough, Lady Arabella gets fed up with Caswall’s kite-flying activities, which involve experiments in electricity inspired by Ben Franklyn, so she decides unravel the spool of wire leading to the kite and lay it out in a trail leading back to her old house. Her theory is that Caswall’s obsession with the kite will eventually lead him to follow the wire to her, but as luck would have it, the kite is conveniently struck by lightening, and the electricity follows the wire down to Lady Arabella’s hole, where it ignites the dynamite.
In a scene that predates the ridiculously overblown explosive climaxes of bad action movies by several decades, the ensuing destruction goes on for over two pages, loaded with emphatically gory details:
The whole place looked as if a sea of blood had been beating against it. Each of the explosions from below had thrown out from the well-hole, as if it had been the mouth of a cannon, a mass of fine sand mixed with blood, and a horrible repulsive slime in which were great red masses of rent and torn flesh and fat.
These and more unappetizing details suggest that this is the only passage in the entire text over which Stoker labored with any diligence. The rest of the prose reeks of haste, with description and dialogue that reads as if dictated on the fly – speed-writing, rather than speed-reading – with little concern for establishing atmosphere or developing characters. In fact, the writing is so unadorned that Lair almost reads like first draft that was meant to be further elaborated. The comic-book-like simplicity suggests one of those old “Big-Little Books,” written for kids, which contained an illustration on every page to provide vivid details missing from the text.
What gives the climax its kick is the underlying symbolism permeating the book. Lady Arabella’s well-hole, which emits a noxious stench, is the Sarlac Pit long before there was STAR WARS, EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI – a blatantly obvious substitute for female genitalia. For Stoker, Lady Arabella’s “hole” reminds us that she is a nightmare embodiment of female sexuality – an aggressive seductress who appears beautiful but is revealed as an inhuman monster. In Dracula, Stoker had played a similar game with the vampire’s brides in an early chapter set in the Count’s castle, and he made a big deal out of portraying the transformation of an innocent English maiden into a lascivious vampire who is dispatched when her fiance drives a phallic stake through her body on what would have been their wedding night; Lair of the White Worm takes things a giant step forward, turning the fatal woman into a Godzilla-sized entity whose loathsome nature easily outweighs any seductive appeal, and the final destruction of her lair reads like a grotesque orgasm.
Like H. Rider Haggard’s She, Stoker’s Lair provides a vivid insight into the Victorian male mind’s conception of powerful women. The difference is that Haggard’s adventure tale mixes fear and fascination in regard to Ayesha, “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.” Much more simplistic, Stoker simply piles on the disgusting details meant to convince us that Lady Arabella deserves to be blown into a million pieces of slimy worm-flesh.
Just in case you miss the symbolism, the ending reminds us that Adam has secretly married Mimi somewhere along the way, but his monster-fighting activities have prevented him from enjoying a honeymoon. Now that Lady Arabella has been reduced to harmless worm-mush, Adam’s uncle reappears and reminds the newlyweds that they are overdue. With the evil female defeated, her dark, dank hole plugged, nothing stands in the way of Alan’s consummating his relationship with his safe, “normal” bride.
When filmmaker Ken Russell saw his attempt to remake DRACULA come to nothing, he turned to Lair of the White Worm as an alternative but found the text markedly inferior. Rather wisely, Russell decided to present the film as a hoot; equally wisely, he removed Caswell and his kite, along with Oolanga, putting the focus on Lady Arabella (renamed Sylvia Marsh and embodied by the wonderful Amanda Donohoe, whose forked-tongue-in-cheek performance rivals Vincent Price at his campiest).
Russell’s sly joke is that, although he set the story in contemporary times, he retained the ridiculous Victorian attitudes, contrasting the innocent English maidens with the seductive Roman snake-goddess. Russell pushes a theme that Stoker suggested but never developed, that the lair of the white worm is nestled in territory once occupied by Roman invaders. Russell imagines Lady Sylvia less as a prehistoric beast and more as a pagan priestess, offering virgin sacrifices to her god. (Although in this case Lady Sylvia and the giant worm are two separate entities, she retains her snake-like characteristics, including viper-like fangs and spitting poison). The location where the skull of an ancient worm is uncovered was once a Roman place of worship, but the territory has changed hands over the centuries, at one point being a monastary (providing a chance for Russell to include a flashback of Roman warriors raping nuns).
The Christian-versus-Pagan subtext sets up a nice vibe in the film, but Russell does not take it seriously, playing his symbolism for laughs. In a scene that seems deliberately lifted from CITY OF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL), Lady Arabella’s melodramatic invocation of the snake god, while she prepares to sacrifice a young virgin, is interrupted by the door bell, prompting her to exclaim, “Shit!” Later, a dream sequence shows one of the two male leads raising his pen into an erect position when Lady Arabella walks by – do I really need to explain that one?
Russell also undermines the genre conventions and plot expectations, to hilarious effect. When the “heroic” male lead (played by a very young Hugh Grant) confronts and kills a snake woman by slicing her in half with a sword, his momentum swings him around into a nearby drum set, where he goes crashing down amidst the clanging cymbals, looking like a complete idiot. (Russell probably got the idea from destroying drum kits from Keith Moon, whom he directed in the film adaptation of The Who’s TOMMY).
Lacking the budget to visualize Stoker’s multiple-explosion finale, Russell has to rely on a single blast, but he keeps the sexual symbolism forefront: the Scottish archaeologist who finishes off the worm (Peter Capaldi) reaches under his kilt to retrieve a grenade as if he were removing a giant testicle and dropping it down the feminine “hole,” where the resulting explosion (orgasm?) finishes off the icky female monster.
The film version of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM has divided critical opinion (it ranks at 54% at Rotten Tomatoes). Those looking for a good horror film are inevitably disappointed – as indeed was I for the first half of my first screening. Once I realized I was watching a comedy, I laughed the rest of the way through and went back to see it again from the beginning so that I could enjoy the humor there, as well.
One can hardly blame audiences for missing the joke. It helps to be familiar with the original text – at least by reputation. Standing on its own, Russell’s LAIR is a typically delirious work from a director who specialized in excess. One might appreciate it as a generic genre parody, but the full effect comes through when you see the 20th century filmmaker deliberately undermining the 19th century author. In the case of Stoker’s Dracula, we can lament that no film has ever truly been faithful to the novel; in the case of Lair of the White Worm, we should be thankful that Russell gave the text the thorough de-construction job that it deserved.