The Lair of the White Worm: A Study Guide

Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker.

Corbis Historical

The Lair of the White Worm was the last published novel by Irish author Bram Stoker, best known for his earlier novel and stage play, Dracula. Published in 1911, Stoker died just a year later, after a series of strokes that many suspect were the result of untreated syphilis. Some have speculated that the muddled nature of the plot in The Lair of the White Worm and the low quality of some of the writing can be attributed to Stoker’s declining health.

Despite these flaws, the book features both startling imagery and frightening sequences. Regrettably, however, the most commonly available version of the book is a 1925 edition which was inexplicably abbreviated by the publisher, who cut twelve chapters and rendered the story nearly incomprehensible. This cut-down version was later reissued in the United States under the title In the Garden of Evil and is still the most common version found online. This and the fact that the structure of the plot and several characters echo those found in Dracula has caused The Lair of the White Worm to be regarded as one of Stoker’s lesser works.

The White Worm is, in part, based on the legend of the Lambton Worm, which is in turn based on other, older legends of giant worms that herald the end of the world or other terrible fates.

Plot

Adam Salton returns from Australia after a lengthy absence from England. He has been invited to come live with his Uncle Richard Salton at his estate called Lesser Hill in Mercia, an ancient region of Derbyshire in central England. This area is marked by ancient properties and old manor homes. Adam and his uncle get along very well because of a shared enthusiasm for history, and Richard introduces Adam to his friend Sir Nathaniel de Salis, president of the Mercian Archaeological Society and an accomplished geologist. De Salis lives at nearby Doom Tower.

Sir Nathaniel explains to Adam that Mercia was built on top of ancient Roman ruins, and that the country is still immersed in elemental forces that the rest of the world has scoured away. Sir Nathaniel tells Adam that these forces are focused on two particularly ancient spots, Diana’s Grove and Mercy Farm. Mercy Farm is occupied by a tenant farmer named Watford, whose daughter Lilla and her cousin Mimi also live there. At Diana’s Grove, the old manor house is occupied by Lady Arabella March, a beautiful widow. Adam also learns that the whole area is excited because the great house of the area, Castra Regis, is going to be occupied for the first time in decades; the heir to the estate, Edgar Caswall, is returning to the area.

When Adam finally meets Edgar Caswall, he finds that the heir practices mesmerism, and even has a chest supposedly belonging to Franz Mesmer himself. Caswall has become obsessed with the beautiful Lilla, and has been placing her under his hypnotic power. Caswall’s servant Oolanga is also introduced, a brutish and evil man from Africa. Lady March, who appears to be cold and unfeeling, seems to have designs on Caswall; she has lost her fortune and marrying the wealthy Caswall would be an ideal solution to her money problems.

Odd events mar the region. Pigeons go berserk and attack Caswall’s crops. Black snakes turn up at Lesser Hill, and Adam procures a mongoose to combat them. A child is found at Lesser Hill who has been bitten on the neck, and Adam learns that another child was killed recently, and that dead animals have also been discovered recently. Adam witnesses Lady March commit several bizarre violent acts: She rips the mongoose apart in her bare hands, and later drags Oolanga into a pit. Adam cannot prove either event, however.

Adam begins romancing Mimi Watford, and consults Sir Nathaniel about what he’s seen. Nathaniel becomes convinced that Lady March is connected to the legend of the White Worm, an ancient creature supposedly slumbering under the ground of Mercia. He believes Arabella is the manifestation of the creature, or possibly the evolved form of it. He suggests they hunt down Lady March, and Adam and his uncle agree to assist.

They go to Diana’s Grove and discover that Lady March is actually a monstrous white worm living in a pit inside the house. The worm emerges and the men flee, taking refuge in Doom Tower. They can see the huge worm stand up over the treetops, its eyes glowing. The men formulate a plan to destroy the worm by pouring sand and dynamite into its pit. They do so, but before they can ignite the explosives they are confronted by Caswall and Lady March; just then lightning strikes the grove, igniting the dynamite and destroying the entire estate, killing the Worm.

Major Characters

  • Adam Salton. A young man recently returned from Australia at the invitation of his uncle. Adam is heroic and ethical, and very interested in history and archeology.
  • Richard Salton. Adam’s uncle, the owner of Lesser Hill in Mercia.
  • Sir Nathaniel de Salis. A renowned geologist and expert on the ancient civilization that once dominated the area of Mercia.
  • Edgar Caswall. A callow and wealthy man who seeks to learn the power of mesmerism for his own gains, including dominating the beautiful Lilla Watford.
  • Lady Arabella March. A penniless widow and owner of the house at Diana’s Grove. She is either the human form or manifestation of the White Worm, or its servant.
  • Mimi Watford. Young girl living at Mercy Farm. Intelligent and independent, eventually falls in love with Adam Salton.
  • Lilla Watford. Beautiful daughter of Michael Watford. Shy and easily intimidated, she falls under the sway of Edgar Caswall.
  • Oolanga. Black servant of Edgar Caswall. He engages in several unethical plots before being murdered by Lady March.

    Literary Style

    Stoker employed a straightforward third-person narration, told in relatively straightforward language and utilizing few literary devices. Events unfold on the page more or less in order and without any commentary from the omniscient narrator. In fact, despite the omniscience of the narrator, who follows characters wherever they go and often is privy to their interior thoughts, many motivations of the characters are left obscure.

    Additionally, several episodes in the novel don’t seem to contribute to the resolution and are left unresolved by the end of the story. Edgar Caswall’s mesmerism of Lilla and Oolanga’s various mean-spirited schemes are each given much attention but simply peter out by the end. Stoker also chooses to reveal many of the story’s secrets and twists to the reader but not the characters, causing frustration in the reading experience.

    Whether these flaws were the result of Stoker’s declining health and mental capacity is unknown, though when compared to his earlier works the decline is quite obvious.

    Themes

    Sexuality. Stoker has been referred to as a “prude and a pornographer all at once.” In Lair of the White Worm Lady March is depicted as an emotionless but beautiful woman who uses her sexuality to gain advantage, and is revealed (surprisingly early on in the novel) to be a hideous, foul-smelling worm. Much in the way Dracula represented the dangers of female lust, the White Worm represents the destructive power of feminine sexuality even as Stoker delighted in exploring the implied possibilities of Lady March’s sexuality.

    Racism. Stoker lived and worked in a starkly racist time and place, but even so his depiction of Oolanga in this novel is remarkably virulent. Described as completely savage and barely human (literally), Oolanga exists solely to plot evil acts and then die horribly, and Stoker’s conviction that white ethnics were superior to other races is a clear and distasteful vein in the story.

    Science as Magic. Stoker cites actual science of the times in his story in order to offer plausible explanations for the incredible events he’s describing (for example, suggesting radium might be responsible for many of the seemingly magical events). This is often lost on modern audiences because much of the science he’s using has been largely debunked.

    Quotes

    “She had been to a tea-party with an antediluvian monster, and that they had been waited on by up-to-date men-servants.”

    “In an age of investigation like our own, when we are returning to science as the base of wonders — almost of miracles — we should be slow to refuse to accept facts, however impossible they may seem to be.”

    “If any of these things be so ... our difficulties have multiplied indefinitely. They may even change in kind. We may get into moral entanglements; before we know it, we may be over in the midst of a bedrock struggle between good and evil?”

    “Doubtless Oolanga had his dreams like other men. In such cases he saw himself as a young sun-god, as beautiful as the eye of dusky or even white womanhood had ever dwelt upon. He would have been filled with all noble and captivating qualities—or those regarded as such in West Africa. Women would have loved him, and would have told him so in the overt and fervid manner usual in affairs of the heart in the shadowy depths of the forest of the Gold Coast.”

    The Lair of the White Worm Fast Facts

    • Title: The Lair of the White Worm
    • Author: Bram Stoker
    • Date Published: 1911
    • Publisher: William Rider and Son Ltd.
    • Literary Genre: Horror
    • Language: English
    • Themes: Sexuality, ancient evil, science as magic, racism
    • Characters: Adam Salton, Richard Salton, Sir Nathaniel de Salis, Lady Arabella March, Edgar Caswall, Lilla Watford, Mimi Watford, Oolanga

    Sources

    • Punter, David. “Echoes in the Animal House: The Lair of the White Worm.” SpringerLink, Springer, Dordrecht, 1 Jan. 1998, link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-349-26838-2_11.
    • Stoker, Bram. “The Lair of the White Worm, 1911 Text.” http://www.bramstoker.org/pdf/novels/12wormhc.pdf
    • Fleming, Colin, et al. “Digging Up the Truth About Bram Stoker.” Velazquez, Or Social Climbing As Art | VQR Online, www.vqronline.org/digging-truth-about-bram-stoker.
    • “The Lair of the White Worm.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lair_of_the_White_Worm#cite_note-3.
    • Friedman, Joe. “Analysis of Technology and Attitudes in Bram Stoker's ‘Dracula.’” Owlcation, Owlcation, 1 Nov. 2016, owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Technology-and-Attitudes-in-Bram-Stokers-Dracula.