Staying with Monday’s dragon theme and collating it with last Friday’s Stoker centenary, I recently read dear old Bram’s last novel The Lair of the White Worm, published in 1911, a year before his death.
I have fond memories of this from when I were little more than a lad, and even fonder memories of Ken Russell’s crazy film inspired by the book. Let’s pause for a slightly washed out trailer:-
I miss Ken Russell.
While purists are usually calling for heads on pikes at the first hint of directors deviating from cherished texts, I can’t recall anyone ever complaining about the liberties Russell took with Stoker’s Worm, and that’s probably because he improved it immensely, taking a rather uninspired and slightly dippy story, retaining the central idea and having huge fun playing around with all the other components.
The book wasn’t quite as much fun, and checking out the wikipedia article linked to above, it appears that my free download was of the truncated twenty eight chapter edition, and not the full blown forty chapter original. Hmph!
Whatever the case, this was a pretty feeble effort, with little psychological underpinning to the characters, the story replete with handsome heroes, stiff upper lipped former military men, virginal maidens, instant love affairs and a moustache twirling villain who goes mad when his will is thwarted, as you do. Then there’s the poorly developed plot in which the characters are forever doing odd things and walking away with nobody commenting or calling them on it, such as the scene in which the happy couple are visiting Lady Arabella, who starts a fire only for them to walk out of one door and back in another, with absolutely no mention of what’s going on to their hostess – I’ve heard of British reserve, but this was ridiculous. And there are other strands which serve no real purpose, such as the discovery of a locked chest containing paraphernalia used by Anton Mesmer, initially given a Lamont Configuration portentousness only to be rendered mundane and simply forgotten. And the Hitchcockian influx of birds which arrives mid-novel to save the second string heroine, but then hangs on past the point when it serves any actual purpose. Plenty of other things just don’t make much sense, such as Lady Arabella selling her property to her enemies, and thus allowing them to cut her off from her underground lair at will.
You could make a case for Dracula being ahead of its time, with female lead Mina taking an equal share in the fight to bring the vampire down, even if all the men are absurdly considerate of her well being, and there are correspondences with Lair. The Lucy and Mina roles are taken by sisters Lilla and Mimi, with the former falling prey to the psychic onslaught of the novel’s evil triumvirate, while the latter is a much more robust representative of her gender, braving the monster in his castle. Contrarily, Lady Arabella March is judged and found wanting ab initio, dismissed as a scheming minx out to land a rich husband to settle her debts (something only approved of in Jane Austen novels it seems), so that when she is revealed as a giant snake in human form the party of the angels can smugly shake their heads in recognition of the fact that they always knew she weren’t right, and base their plans to destroy her on the Lady’s ‘feminine weaknesses’. On the subject of race, the book is far more negative, with African sorceror Oolanga roundly reviled by all and seen as an example of the lower races, with even his master urging Lady Arabella to simply shoot the man if he becomes a nuisance as nobody will mind. For modern readers the sweeping generalisations employed can’t help but leave a nasty taste, and yeah, I know it was written over a hundred years ago and standards were different then, but as a child I was steeped in the work of H. Rider Haggard and I don’t remember him appearing this bigoted.
It’s only at the end, when all hell breaks loose, that the book really comes into its own, with lightning storms and explosions, homicidal madmen and a giant snake roaming the countryside at night, and Stoker’s writing a lot more vivid and muscular in rising to the occasion, but even here the catalyst for the action requires a considerable elasticity on the part of credibility. No matter, evil is defeated, and the good guy gets the girl and, thanks to a serendipitous discovery, a considerable fortune to boot.
Here’s some more Ken, and a reminder of why, warts and all, I will always love this book:-
Curiously, this clip makes me think of The Imaginary Girlfriend in her younger days. I think it’s the ‘I won’t bite’ comment.