Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm: Supernatural Representations and Nineteenth-Century Paleontology
by Carol Senf
[page 48] While Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula continues to inspire a variety of critical responses from people who see it as everything from a condemnation of the New Woman to a celebration of science and technology and an expression of the angst that many Europeans felt when confronted with the imminent demise of their empire, The Lair of the White Worm (1911), Stoker’s last published work, tends to inspire confusion. Occasionally that confusion has led to the speculation that the book is itself confused because Stoker was suffering from tertiary syphilis, an argument first posed by Stoker biographer and great nephew, Daniel Farson. Both biographer Paul Murray and literary scholar Lisa Hopkins describe Lair as “bizarre,” noting the confusing sub-plots, while David Glover and Andrew Maunder examine its relationship to the time in which Stoker was writing. Almost everyone comments on its popularity, and this article speculates that some of that popularity stems from the fact that Stoker tackles common fin-de-siècle anxieties regarding the relationship between England and her colonies, the changing role of women, and the continued power of the past. To represent those fears dramatically, Stoker creates an enormous supernatural monster that combines elements of what Victorians believed about dinosaurs with their concerns about predatory women.
The last of Stoker’s Gothic novels (the other purely Gothic works are Dracula and The Jewel of Seven Stars), The Lair of the White Worm features a group of contemporary Englishmen who must confront and ultimately destroy Lady Arabella March, who is both a creature from the past who comes to wreak havoc on the present and one of their neighbors. Of course, part of the difficulty readers have may stem from the fact that Stoker is not adapting a familiar trope, the vampire or mummy, with which readers have some familiarity. In Lair, Stoker is on unfamiliar ground in that he uses the material from contemporary science to create a new kind of threat. And unlike his friend and fellow writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who also writes of dinosaurs in The Lost World (1912), Stoker’s dinosaur (or worm) is supernatural rather than natural in that she shifts back and forth from terrible lizard (the word dinosaur comes from two Greek words, deinos meaning “terrible” or “fearfully great” and sauros meaning “lizard”) to woman “on the make,” as is evident in the following passage:
Our opponent has pretty well all the trumps. I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster was such a complicated job. This one is a woman, with all a woman’s wisdom and wit, [page 49] combined with the heartlessness of a cocotte and the want of principle of a suffragette. She has the reserved strength and impregnability of a diplodocus. We may be sure that in the fight that is before us there will be no semblance of fair-play. (206)
Both forms are monstrous, but the two different physical forms allow Stoker to focus on two of his favorite issues: the power of the past over the present and the dominating power of the predatory female. Thus, he presents Lady Arabella as a young widow looking for a new husband but also capable of transforming into a creature that can see over the tops of trees and destroy her opponents with a single blow. Including the term “suffragette” in his description also suggests that he was thinking about a particular topical issue: the changing roles for women in the years immediately preceding World War I. Maunder reminds readers that Emmeline Pankhurst had formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, a group that “had begun to step up its militant approach” in 1911, “the year of the novel’s publication” (97). Although his monster is female, that fact does not make him either misogynistic or anti-feminist because she is balanced by other positive depictions of women in the novel, including Mimi Watford, who marries Adam Salton. The sheer physical size of this monstrous creature, however, suggests the enormity of both problems.
Naturalism: Stoker’s Use of Contemporary Paleontology
While Stoker’s White Worm seems to be a supernatural creature, his use of the term Diplodocus, the name given to a dinosaur that was first discovered in 1877, demonstrates some awareness of contemporary paleontology. Exactly where he would have learned about dinosaurs is less clear, however. There are no books on paleontology in the catalogue of books that Florence Stoker sold after her husband’s death (Browning, 221-241). However, because Bram and Florence had downsized after leaving Cheyne Walk, it is entirely possible that the books on sale do not represent the full extent of his personal library. That many of the volumes listed in the catalogue were uncut presentation volumes also suggests that this was not Stoker’s working library but a collection. Indeed, many books he is known to have read are missing from the sale catalogue.
A resident of London, Stoker could have been familiar with the Diplodocus replica at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The museum itself was completed in 1880, and the plaster and papier maché model, which an article in The New York Times describes as a “snake,” was donated to the museum by Andrew Carnegie in 1905. Also in London were the life-size models of dinosaurs that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had been commissioned to create in 1852 for London’s Crystal Palace when it was moved to Sydenham Hill, South London. [page 50]
Although Stoker could have seen a model Diplodocus in London, he might also have seen fossils of other ancient creatures in Whitby, where he is known to have vacationed and where library records indicate that he learned about Transylvania and the name Dracula. There is less of a paper trail where fossils are concerned. However, according to Michael Freeman in Victorians and the Prehistoric: Tracks to a Lost World (2004), Whitby had distinctive rock strata that yielded numerous fossils, which found their way into museums “up and down the land, specimens of the Ichthyosaurus and the Plesiosaurus prominent among them” (136). In fact, the Whitby Museum, which was established in 1823, includes numerous fossils that Stoker could have seen there. The website for the museum does not indicate whether Stoker ever visited, but it does mention many famous visitors, including Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins, which indicates that it was a popular attraction for visitors to the area.
Stoker could have seen bones of another gigantic prehistoric creature before he left Ireland, where, according to Freeman, the bones of the Irish Elk were extremely common:
The bones of this particular animal were found in such abundance in the bogs and marl-pits of that island that they had long ceased to be regarded as curiosities by local inhabitants. Even so, no reader could fail to be astonished by the Elk’s size, the specimen preserved in the museum of the Royal Dublin Society having a spine nearly eleven feet long and the horns or antlers measuring nine feet between their tips. (155)
Certainly, these remains easily demonstrate a past in which giants walked the earth and would have reinforced Stoker’s apprehension about the power of the past over the present.
If these creatures from the past were monstrous in terms of sheer size, they were also regarded by both the scientific and the artistic communities as monsters of ferocity and appetite. Freeman’s introduction reminds readers of the cultural significance of the dinosaur:
The fearsome world of ‘great sea dragons’, as Thomas Hawkins described the marine form of these reptiles, came in due course to be an uncomfortable reminder of the desperate struggle for existence that was to emerge with the unfurling of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Henry De la Beche’s classic pictorial reconstruction of untold primeval violence in which reptiles are displayed in an orgy of killing each other gave worrying counterpoint to contemporary theories like that of Thomas Malthus in which the human population was pitted in a continual struggle against subsistence. (4; Freeman cites T. Hawkins, The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri: Extinct Monsters of the Ancient Earth. London, 1840.) [page 51]
Brian Switek makes a similar point in My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, observing that “the first English naturalists to describe dinosaurs saw them as fearsome, sharp-toothed reptiles of untold destructive power” (27). Unlike dragons and other creatures of myth and legend, these were the bones of real monsters that had at one time roamed the earth, and, increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, they were the subject of serious scientific inquiry.
One of Stoker’s characters, the antiquarian Sir Nathaniel de Salis, links science to the legends associated with England’s past. Sir Nathaniel, “President of the Mercian archaeological society” as well as a “geologist and natural historian” (12), tells Adam Salton, a young newcomer to the area, the local legend of the White Worm, noting that “worm” is an “adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon ‘wyrm,’ meaning a dragon or snake; or from the Gothic ‘waurms,’ a serpent; or the Icelandic ‘ormur,’ or the German ‘wurm.’” (50). He goes on to relate the legends, describing the worm as “a monster of vast size and power–a veritable dragon or serpent, such as legend attributes to vast fens or quags where there was illimitable room for expansion” (50) and adds to this description the geography of the area, which includes “holes of abysmal depth, where any kind and size of antediluvian monster could find a habitat” (50). He thus suggests the possibility that such a monster could have survived until the novel’s present.
Shapeshifting and the Birth of a Supernatural Monster
Despite his apparent awareness of contemporary paleontology, Stoker’s White Worm is more than a remnant of the prehistoric past, however; he takes a reptilian monster and turns it into a supernatural creature that is capable of shifting back and forth from antediluvian monster to impoverished gentlewoman.
The sheer size of the creature is enough to make it fearsome when Adam sees it for the first time looming over the trees:
On the western side of the tower stood a grove of old trees, of forest dimensions. They were not grouped closely, but stood a little apart from each other, producing the effect of a row widely planted. Over the tops of them was seen a green light, something like the danger signal at a railway-crossing. It seemed at first quite still; but presently, when Adam’s eye became accustomed to it, he could see that it moved as if trembling. (216)
As his eyes adjust to the unbelievable sight, Adam sees that “the green light” was “now at the summit of what seemed to be a long white pole, near the top of which were two pendant white masses, like rudimentary [page 52] arms ” (222). Seen from a distance, the creature is monstrous primarily because of its size. Encountered at a closer distance, it becomes horrifying because its smell evokes death and decay:
He compared it with all the noxious experiences he had ever had–the drainage of war hospitals, of slaughter-houses, the refuse of dissecting rooms. None of these was like it, though it had something of them all, with, added, the sourness of chemical waste and the poisonous effluvium of the bilge of a water-logged ship whereon a multitude of rats had been drowned. (172)
As he had done with Count Dracula fourteen years earlier, Stoker uses sensory experience to evoke fear but also disgust. In addition, the physical disgust is linked to Lady Arabella’s body and to associations with blood and other bodily fluids. Instead of giving birth to the next generation and nurturing it, however, she drags victims down into the well-hole where she destroys them.
And the disgust is evident even when Lady Arabella March, appearing in human form, destroys both the mongoose that Adam had purchased to rid his property of snakes and an African servant who had dared to proclaim his love for her:
As it [the mongoose] seized her throat, she caught hold of it, and with a fury superior to its own, actually tore it in two just as if it had been a sheet of paper. The strength used for such an act must have been terrific. In an instant, it seemed to spout blood and entrails, and was hurled into the well-hole. In another instant she had seized Oolanga, and with a swift rush had drawn him, her white arms encircling him, down with her into the gaping aperture. (174)
Because Stoker does not describe her transformation for either his characters or his readers, Adam is left questioning his sanity regarding what had just happened:
Then he rubbed his eyes in sheer amazement. Up the stone steps from the narrow door by which he had entered, glided the white-clad figure of Lady Arabella, the only colour to be seen on her being blood-marks on her face and hands and throat. Otherwise, she was calm and unruffled, as when earlier she stood aside for him to pass in through the narrow iron door. (176)
The reader is also left with questions regarding the nature of the relationship between Lady Arabella and the White Worm. Is the Worm similar to a witch’s familiar? Does the lovely and aristocratic Lady Arabella transform into the loathsome worm? Who or what controls these transformations? It appears that Lady Arabella was born as a human child, but is she now at least partially human? Why exactly does she need to maintain a human form, especially a human form that adheres so strictly to rigid traditional gender roles? [page 53]
Indeed, while Dracula’s Dr. Van Helsing provides both followers and readers with a kind of supernatural history of the vampire, Sir Nathaniel poses several theories about the White Worm. Following the scene in which Lady Arabella kills the mongoose, Adam surmises that the reaction of the animal might lead him to conclude that she is a snake. A little later Sir Nathaniel reveals Lady Arabella’s history. As a young girl, she had been found unconscious in a wood near her home, and her high fever caused her physician to conclude she had been bitten by a snake and probably would not survive. Because she did survive, though with a propensity for cruel treatment of birds and small animals, Sir Nathaniel concludes that the White Worm gained control over her body. However, he and Adam, as well as the reader, are left with questions regarding the presence of two bodies (a familiar) or a transformation. The conclusion in which Adam blows up the well-hole reveals the presence of two physical bodies. What is never in question, though, is the existence of the monstrous worm and an aristocratic woman who–for whatever reason–is obliged to maintain a conventional lifestyle; in need of money to maintain her estate, she never contemplates becoming a New Woman and working for a living, but instead tries unsuccessfully to seduce both Adam Salton and Edgar Caswell. She also maintains her position as a landowner and visits with other prominent residents of the neighborhood. What finally leads to her demise is her decision to sell Diana’s Grove to Adam and settle on a smaller property belonging to her late husband. When he gains control of her property, he has access to the well-hole, which he destroys with dynamite.
While Sir Nathaniel offers several plausible scientific explanations for the Worm’s origins, Mimi, on the other hand, accepts the monster’s supernatural nature:
Since her marriage to Adam and their coming to stay at Doom Tower, Mimi had been always fettered by fear of the horrible monster at Diana’s Grove. But now she dreaded it no longer. She accepted the fact of its assuming at will the form of Lady Arabella and vice versa, and had been perhaps equally afraid whichever form it took. (277)
Readers are equally likely to see this shape shifter as a supernatural monster and thus to conclude that eliminating the power of the past requires a dramatic solution–in this case annihilation rather than diplomacy.
Regardless of what exactly she is, however, Adam’s decision to pack the well-hole with dynamite results in a perfectly natural explosion and the destruction of Lady Arabella and the White Worm. It is a ghastly conclusion for a monster, and the explosion not only destroys the White Worm and Edgar Caswall, it also destroys the visible symbols of their hereditary power, Diana’s Grove and Castra Regis. It also eliminates [page 54] traditional forms of family power and opens up England to the positive contributions of the colonies, at least where Adam and Mimi are concerned.
The Monstrous Eternal Feminine
Despite its ghastly conclusion and the fact that Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm shows signs of being hurriedly written, it is like its more famous predecessor in terms of its using the supernatural to explore serious cultural issues. Among them are the relationship between England and its colonies, the changing role of women, and the influence that the past imposes on the present.
The relationship between England and its colonies is suggested by three characters: Oolanga, who is both an African practitioner of Voodoo and Edgar Caswall’s servant, and is the White Worm’s most dramatic human victim; the novel’s youthful hero, Adam Salton, who is Australian; and Mimi Watford, the daughter of an English soldier and a Burmese woman, who is raised by her English grandfather and eventually marries Adam. Even though The Lair of the White Worm is set in a specific part of England, Stoker provides backgrounds for his characters that remind readers that England is part of an empire on which the sun never sets. It is also an empire whose population is extraordinarily diverse.
If Stoker reveals his awareness of the Empire in The Lair of the White Worm, he also demonstrates his consciousness that the condition of women was changing. Set during a period when people still travel by carriage but trains are common and ships are powered by steam, the novel focuses on three young marriageable women: Lady Arabella March, Mimi Watford, and Mimi’s cousin, Lilla Watford. Even though Lady Arabella is presented as cruel even in her human form and as monstrous when she transforms into the gigantic White Worm, her human needs are more nuanced. The widow of a man she had assumed to be rich, she is desperately hoping to attract a wealthy husband and sets her sights on both Adam Salton and Edgar Caswall to save her estate, which is “mortgaged up to the hilt, and is held in male tail only, so that her only hope is in a rich marriage” (33). Stoker thus sets his novel at a time when most women were not educated to be able to take care of themselves and their finances. Despite wielding great power in the form of the White Worm, she also needs to live as a mid-century woman and to adhere to the social amenities of inviting people to tea and waiting for a proposal from a suitable man. David Glover argues that she is both a representative of the Saxon past and a signifier of “aristocratic degeneration” (357).
Lilla Watford is similarly presented as a traditional woman. Indeed, she has taken on the quiet demeanor of the doves who had once inhabited the nunnery that had been built in the days of Queen Bertha, [page 55] the Queen of Kent often credited for “enabling the acceptance of St Augustine’s mission of conversion” (Who’s Who, 80). Because all of the ancestral properties seem to preserve some of the character of their original owners, the land is still called Mercy Farm. Lilla’s traditional behavior is revealed in her passivity. For example, even though she fears Edgar Caswall, she feels obliged to be hospitable to him, and she ultimately dies under his hypnotic gaze. Like Lady Arabella, she is trapped by her traditional role and is, as Glover notes, “an anachronism” (356).
Stoker’s treatment of the monstrous women in his novels–Lucy Westenra and Dracula’s three brides in Dracula, Queen Tera in The Jewel of Seven Stars, and Lady Arabella–has led Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, Phyllis Roth, Judith Weissman, and Gail B. Griffin to question whether Stoker was a misogynist or at least critical of the sexually liberated new woman. The character of Mimi Watford, however, raises new possibilities. Not only is Mimi presented as independent and courageous–she supports Lilla when Edgar attempts to overcome her, follows Edgar to his castle where she confronts him, and agrees to join Lady Arabella at tea even though she is aware of Lady Arabella’s dual nature–she is also presented (along with her Australian husband) as the face of the future. Indeed, the novel ends with the two of them going off on their honeymoon and the hint that they will return to put to good use the clay deposits uncovered by the explosion that had killed Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswall. As Glover notes, these two outsiders “bring a badly needed infusion of fresh energy” to “the ancient, racially chaotic kingdom of Mercia” (356).
This future orientation is in stark contrast to the past as it appears throughout the novel. Not only is Lady Arabella described as a dinosaur, but the ancestral homes in which the characters live are evocative of the distant past; as Diane Long Hoeveler notes, they reflect “stages in Britain’s historical evolution, from Celtic to Roman to Christian to Capitalist” (6). Castra Regis, the ancestral home of the Caswall family, is the chief residence of the region and is known by its Latin name (which translates as ‘the king’s fortress’) while the Caswalls are described as having Roman characteristics; Lady Arabella’s home, Diana’s Grove, also suggests its Roman origins, though Sir Nathaniel suggests that the land may have originally been the site of a Druid temple; Sir Nathaniel’s home is Doom Tower, while the Salton’s family estate, Lesser Hill, is characterized as equally old. However, there is no hint of the sinister in Stoker’s presentation of them, and the Watford home, Mercy Farm, has quite positive connotations, with “almost the right to be considered holy ground” (81). It is clear, however, that the emphasis here is on the past, a past from which most of the characters find it difficult to escape.
The appropriately-named Adam Salton and his young bride are the only characters that Stoker presents as forward-looking. In fact, Adam is more proud of his ability to fix things than of his ancestral property. [page 56] Offering to repair Lady Arabella’s carriage, he observes that he is an Australian and thus trained in “farriery and such mechanics as come into travel” (30). Similarly, the young woman with whom he falls in love, Mimi Watford, is also a product of the colonies though she has lived in England for most of her life. As a result, she too has ties to both England and the larger world beyond it. Though described as “almost as dark as the darkest of her mother’s race” (43), Mimi does not suffer the criticism that Stoker often levels against other dark-skinned characters, including Oolanga, who is described as “unreformed, unsoftened savage ... the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human” (35). Indeed, Hoeveler suggests that their marriage suggests an assimilation of the colonies in a way that “is no longer threatening, but actually contributes to the hardiness of the racial stock” (14).
Stoker’s Use of the Supernatural to Reflect on the Nineteenth Century
As Maunder observes, Stoker’s use of the supernatural can be explained at least partially by the fact he was concerned with what he thought would sell. As a result, he experimented with various popular genres, including the romance, the Western, adventure, and the Gothic, in addition to nonfiction and journalism. Maunder defends Stoker’s Gothic novels, however, because they “demonstrate his concern with morality … feed anxieties prompted by ‘real-life’ events,” and are written “within–and out of–the ideological values of his age” (97).
In The Lair of the White Worm, Stoker uses the supernatural to focus on the cruelty of the past, a cruelty he works hard to eradicate in his final novel. While people today know that some dinosaurs were peaceful and that some of them collected in herds to protect their families, the trend in the nineteenth century was to imagine dinosaurs as cruel monsters. Thus Sir Nathaniel can refer to “the origin of superstition–to the age when dragons of the prime tore each other in their slime” (191).
Even the more recent human past is characterized as cruel, with the Caswall family characterized as “cold, selfish, dominant, reckless of consequences in pursuit of their own will …. If they should make a mistake someone else should bear the burthen of it” (17). Identified with the Roman occupation of England, both Caswall and Arabella, who is linked to both the Roman and Druidical past, are aristocrats. Much like Dracula, they represent a way of life that, at the turn of the century, is increasingly moribund. The conclusions of these two Gothic novels are somewhat different. Stoker apparently planned to have Dracula’s castle disappear at the same moment that Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris used the weapons of Empire (a kukri knife and a bowie knife) to destroy him. That Stoker chose at the last minute to leave the castle standing leads [page 57] to various speculations, including biographer Barbara Belford’s suggestion that Stoker may have contemplated the possibility of a sequel or wanted readers to wonder whether Dracula lives on (268). There is no such ambiguity at the conclusion to The Lair of the White Worm. Castra Regis and Diana’s Grove are gone while their aristocratic owners are dead. Certainly, the description of the White Worm leaves little to the imagination:
At moments some mountainous mass of flesh surged up through the narrow orifice as though it were forced by a measureless power through an opening infinitely smaller than itself. Some of these fragments were covered or partially covered with white skin as of a human being, and others–the largest and most numerous–with scaled skin as of a gigantic lizard or serpent … Adam saw part of the thin form of Lady Arabella forced up to the top amid a mass of blood and slime and what looked as if it had been the entrails of a monster torn in shreds. (316)
While Stoker has his young professionals returning to the site of their victory over a supernatural foe at the conclusion to Dracula, the physical presence of the castle suggests that some aspects of the past remains with them. The Lair of the White Worm ends with the promise that Adam and Mimi will return from their honeymoon to do something with the white clay that had been revealed by the explosions. It thus suggests a natural future and a new beginning for the human residents of England and its colonies rather than one that is haunted by the supernatural.
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MLA citation (print):
Senf, Carol. "Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm: Supernatural Representations and Nineteenth-Century Paleontology." Supernatural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 48-58.