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Friday
Jul112014

The Lair of the White Worm

We cannot realistically expect trifles in a work with such a name. There should be a gigantic worm and a commensurate lair (and here I find myself already echoing a famous review of the novel's loose and dreadful movie adaptation); there should also be victims for that worm – ideally, lured to the lair and left to scream themselves into agonizing death – a simple formula that could easily be botched by too much meddling and melodrama. There is, wonderful to say, only a moderate portion of the latter among pages of sparkling prose in this author's final novel. 

Our protagonist is Adam Salton, a young, roughly hewn Australian of proper upbringing who stands to inherit substantial wealth and territory from his British forebears. His plans for this turn of fortune are no different than those of any callow Victorian hero: survey the lay of the land, see what benefits might exist to abandoning the volatile adventure of youth for a sedentary life as a member of the provincial gentry, gain the trust and succor of the commonalty, and, of course, keep his eyes peeled for a nubile lass with whom his house can be made into a home. Two lovely possibilities immediately appear. Lilla Watford, "as good as she is pretty," and, a less obvious choice, her first cousin Mimi, half-Burmese with "black eyes [that] can glow .... as do the eyes of a bird when her young are threatened." As bright as the prospects for Adam and one of these women remain – being a man of inexperience, he is instinctively more attracted to the blonde Lilla – a long aquiline shadow is cast by the form of Edgar Caswall. I struggle now to recall a literary Edgar who was both gentle and sane, but no matter. The "history of the Caswall family is coeval with that of England," and our Edgar has been generated from like-minded snobs unaccustomed to challenges or laughter. In fact, their only custom seems to have been one of acquist:

Now, it will be well for you to bear in mind the prevailing characteristics of this race. These were well preserved and unchanging; one and all they are the same: cold, selfish, dominant, reckless of consequences in pursuit of their own will. It was not that they did not keep faith, though that was a matter which gave them little concern, but that they took care to think beforehand of what they should do in order to gain their ends. If they should make a mistake someone else should bear the burthen of it. This was so perpetually recurrent that it seemed to be a part of a fixed policy. It was no wonder indeed that whatever changes took place they were always ensured in their own possessions. They were absolutely of cold, hard nature. Not one of them so far as we have any knowledge was ever known to be touched by the softer sentiments, to swerve from his purpose, or hold his hand in obedience to the dictates of his heart. Part of this was due to their dominant, masterful nature. The aquiline features which marked them seemed to justify every personal harshness. The pictures and effigies of them all show their adherence to the early Roman type. Their eyes were full; their hair, of raven blackness, grew thick and close and curly. Their figures were massive and typical of strength.

It takes no great effort of our imagination to ponder the "idea that in the race there is some demoniac possession"; indeed, the experienced Gothicist would anticipate nothing less. Caswall will pin his cruel eyes on several characters, and they will squirm in various degrees of mesmerism until a filthy secret of his family's legacy is partially revealed, at which point Caswall assumes in our tale a very different role. But it is the appearance of an even more cunning and wicked character that unbalances our equation, and that being is Lady Arabella March.

Even if the contours of her thoughts are allotted relatively few paragraphs, Lady Arabella is one of literature's vilest creations. No one is surprised that her looks have the baleful sleekness and refinement of nature's most devilish predators, nor that her history with these lands – the ancient pagan Kingdom of Mercia, we are duly informed – seems to stretch as far back as that of dear old Edgar. Lady Arabella develops two mortal foes in the course of her attempts to get the very wealthy Edgar to marry her and forgive the mounting debts of her freshly deceased ex-husband: Oolanga, Caswall's ferocious and calculating African man-at-arms, and Sir Nathaniel de Salis, diplomatist, scholar, and President of the Mercian Archaeological Society. Sir Nathaniel is also necessarily somewhat of an expert on the local occult, making him a dramatic counterpart to this famed doctor. The diplomatist will consult regularly with Adam and smartly keep his distance from Lady Arabella, about whom he weaves theory and odd fact into terrible conclusions, but Oolanga cannot seem to let the woman out of his sight. Perhaps it is owing to her excitement at the portage to and fro of an old family chest said to contain "the secrets of Mesmer" himself; perhaps to the simple intuition that once Lady Arabella has Edgar and his rapidly declining mental health in her power, neither Caswall nor his new wife will have any use for an erstwhile witch doctor. Luck will be pressed, as well as a few triggers (rarely outside of modern noir novels does one find so many references to concealed revolvers), and unfortunately for some, most of the village is quite out of earshot.     

Modern readers will surely be repulsed at some of the characterizations of women, and, especially, of dark-skinned Africans, but the novel does not make our man-at-arms into anything more than a vulgar mercenary, which, if he's supposed to be friendly with Edgar Caswall, is well in keeping with the personalities of both villains. What is more, almost all the deprecations directed at him come from an even more abhorrent source. Lair of the White Worm may never be counted among Stoker's masterpieces, but it contains a fullness and ease that eluded many of his earlier works. Sumptuous lines, sometimes on the most banal of topics, are strewn on every page ("He found Sir Nathaniel in the study having an early cup of tea, amplified to the dimensions of possible breakfast"; "He was on the high road to mental disturbance"; "The rest and sleep in ignorance would help her and make a gap between the horrors"; "I don't believe in a partial liar. This art does not deal in veneer"). The storytelling vacillates at the natural unevenness of oral narrative, and confusion over some of the details forces the careful reader to retreat and verify just as a rapt listener would have asked a speaker to revisit a certain scene. Praise should likewise be accorded for the restraint through which our eponymous reptile crawls, literally and figuratively, to the surface towards all the other players. There is also an almost understated deduction that begins with, "if we followed it out" and ends with "is a snake." Even in books of this subject matter, logic has no true peer. And some islands, we remember, don't have snakes for a reason.

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