Bram Stoker
The Lair of the White Worm

It’s hard to believe that this novel was the basis of the excellent 1988 Ken Russell movie. Indeed, Bram Stoker seems to have written The Lair of the White Worm with his brain tied behind his back. The protagonists wander like lobotomized puppets from scene to scene, pausing occasionally to launch into long passages of earnest, muddled exposition, and then to congratulate each other on their lucidity. They are, moreover, bland to the point of culpability. Lady Arabella is a decidedly ineffective villain, especially considering the fact that she can turn into a giant snake, but, though it was clear early on that she wasn’t up to the task, I spent most of the book hoping against hope that she’d devour that prig, Adam, and his little wife too.

The book would be unreadable if it weren’t for a loathsome current of anxiety sliding underneath the surface malaise. This anxiety breaks through most distastefully in the novel’s insistent racism, which even by the low standards of 1911, is embarrassingly vicious. It peeps out rather ludicrously in the bizarre, unmotivated plot devices — the confused references to mesmerism, the multiple mongooses, the giant menacing kite, the titular, antideluvian white worm itself. And it is most effective in the last few pages, which, in true horror fashion, come leaping out of the general fog to deliver heaping and gratuitous gouts of gross-out.

Entertaining as that ending is, the real reason to check this book out of the local library is the set of lovely and evocative illustrations by Patricia Coleman Smith. Just another reminder that, from Dracula on down, Stoker has always inspired better art than he himself could produce.