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16 November 2008 @ 01:39 am
the assiest book I have ever read  
After reporting to you on Dracula I decided that it might be fun to dig a little deeper into the respectable Victorian male id by reading Stoker's last novel, The Lair of the White Worm, in which an evil sexy woman who is really an enormous ancient snake lives in a moist, smelly, dark hole and MUST BE DESTROYED.

The depths of that id turn out to be even fouler than Lady Arabella's hole. (I'm not sorry! This book deserves obscene punning.)

a deceptively charming illustration by tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith--more here

THE WRITING So, so bad. If you've read Dracula you know it's in an epistolary format. Everything is in limited third-person and tied together with a typewriter, not an omniscient narrative voice. This was a really good move on Stoker's part, because it turns out that he can't narrate worth beans. I'm sure the difference in quality also has something to do with the fact that he worked on Dracula for years and didn't revise The Lair of the White Worm at all, but seriously, my NaNoWriMo novel is narrated better than this book.

The pacing and tone and dialogue are so drab and carelessly written that even when the characters are talking about THE DOOM OF THE WORLD they might as well be discussing a slightly awkward social encounter.

There are also sentences that are so absurd that when you see them out of context you will think that Stoker was trying to be funny. But I've seen them in context, and ... I don't think so. For instance:
Any unprejudiced person would accept the green lights to be the eyes of a great snake, such as tradition pointed to living in the well-hole.
I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster would be such a complicated job.
(Of course, that last sentence is followed by "This one is a woman!" Because male antediluvian monsters are a piece of cake. But you've got to watch out for those women's wiles. Luckily, "being feminine, she will probably over-reach herself. Now, Adam, as we have to protect ourselves and others against feminine nature, our strong game will be to play our masculine against her feminine." I promise, I was on the alert to discover what exactly Sir Nathaniel meant by that, but Stoker forgot to indicate which of the things Adam does to fight the White Worm are supposed to be particularly "masculine"--although he does have her femininity be her undoing at last.)

THE RACISM The sexism in this book is so typically run-of-the-mill Victorian-man-frightened-of-women that I'm more amused by it than anything else. The racism, however, is just chilling. Racism, historical and current, is something I study and think about a lot, and I've read plenty of Victorian novels with nasty stereotypes (Thackeray, I'm looking at you), but something about Stoker's racism in this book just unnerved me.

Most of it is focused around the character Oolanga, a West African voodoo practitioner who arrives on the scene as the sinister landowner Edgar Caswall's servant. As you might expect, we get a lot of physiognomy by way of characterization in this novel (Caswall's "early Roman" features enhance his malignity), but Stoker treats us to this sort of analysis of Oolanga in every scene he's in. We start at "the face of Oolanga, as his master called him, was unreformed, unsoftened savage, and inherent in it were all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp--the lowest of all created things that could be regarded in some form ostensibly human" and go downhill from there. When the narrator's not expounding on this theme, Adam, the book's hero, is complaining that the very sight of Oolanga makes his blood boil and he could almost shoot him on the spot.

Stoker uses the epithets "African," "Negro," and "nigger" interchangeably, and I was charitably hypothesizing that as a white Englishman in 1911, despite his American travels, he might not understand the implications of that last word. But I was proven wrong. Oolanga declares his love to the White Worm in her human form (yeah, Stoker went there), and to repulse him she responds:
"I have no desire to be seen so close to my own house in conversation with a--a--a nigger like you!"

She had chosen the word deliberately. She wished to meet his passion with another kind. Such would, at all events, help to keep him quiet. In the deep gloom she could not see the anger which suffused his face.
My best explanation is that Stoker deliberately created Oolanga in order to have a focal point for all of the racial hatred and fear he had ever felt. Really fucking disturbing.

THE MONGOOSES (Yes, that's the correct plural! I checked.) I think they appear in this book the way railway schedules and phonographs do in Dracula--as a result of Stoker's fascination with an ideal of competent, efficient, and knowledgeable manhood. Mongooses are Adam's way of dealing with a problem--snakes. He buys a number of them, first to kill off a population of snakes he notices when first arriving in the area (though it's not apparent that they actually pose any sort of problem), and then, when one reacts to the White Worm Lady as though she were a snake (and she shoots it), to help him investigate her. Stoker treats this absolutely seriously, but the image of a proper Edwardian gentleman strolling about with a mongoose on his shoulder (and later cuddling it when it's frightened by the White Worm) is pretty funny.

THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL What this book is supposed to be about. We've already observed that the hero is actually a sexist, mongoose-toting Klansman. Meanwhile, if Lady Arabella--the White Worm's human version--hadn't been possessed by an ancient evil reptile as a child, her only fault would be wanting to marry a rich man so that she can pay off her late husband's debts. That doesn't sound so bad to me, but the way Stoker writes it, the evil of the White Worm is indistinguishable from the evil of a sexually-realized woman who knows what she wants and goes after it herself.

There isn't actually a fight against the White Worm itself. It is mostly dormant in the book, reeking and eating people who get dropped in its hole and occasionally erecting its shaft above the trees (see illustration) and peering at the surrounding countryside, until it gets exploded at the end in the only compelling scene in the whole book.

The real battles in this book are really weird. On one side are young women, Mimi and her cousin Lilla, and sometimes Adam, who is in love with Mimi. The two women live in Mercy Farm, the site of an old nunnery. On the other side are Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswall, and at one point Oolanga. Edgar is interested in Lilla, but it's unclear how. Every so often, he goes to her house for tea and ends up in a staring match with her. He is trying to hypnotize her; she is trying to resist. Mimi backs up Lilla, and Arabella backs up Edgar--even though she's jealous of Lilla, since Edgar is the rich guy she wants to marry, she thinks that supporting him here will win her his approval.

My best guess is that the battle of wills, in addition to symbolizing Good vs. Evil, is Stoker's surrogate for writing about sexual coercion. This explains Arabella's jealousy despite the fact that when Edgar wins the staring match, Lilla dies--and it's the only explanation I can think of for the way Stoker writes about Oolanga joining the struggle on Edgar and Arabella's side (Adam narrating):
That combination of forces--the over-lord, the white woman, and the black man--would have cost some--probably all of them--their lives in the Southern States of America. To us it was simply horrible.
In 1911, a white man and woman employing a black man as a servant was normal. A ménage à trois involving a white man, a white woman, and a black man could well end in lynching. (And would be thought of as "horrible" by an educated white Englishman.)

OTHER THINGS I haven't told you about are Edgar's evil kite, the Hitchcockian bird invasion, how Mimi being half-Burmese gives her magic eyes (super-resistant to hypnotism!), the especially stupid plot holes, how the White Worm inadvertently helps Adam discover a valuable deposit of clay, even more racist dreck about Oolanga, and the Rube-Goldberg-machine scenario by which Edgar and Arabella cause their own demise.

You can read the whole thing for free here or at a number of other places online. I would have recommended that you do, if you're fascinated by utter trainwrecks of books, if it weren't for all that stuff about Oolanga. That just crosses the line. Instead, if you're still curious, I'll tell you more in the comments.
Miiruandsaca369 on November 16th, 2008 10:35 am (UTC)
Edgar's evil kite.

Now, is this the paper-sticks-and-string contraption sort of kite, or the actual bird we're talking about here?

Either way, all I have in my head given that phrase is a rather fascinatingly weird image of Poe superimposed upon Franklin in a thunderstorm. Er.
anatomiste on November 16th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
It's a giant contraption-kite that looks like a bird of prey.

Poe superimposed upon Franklin is actually the perfect way to describe this part of the book.
Come on Alex!: Robyn Hitchcock - Dylan saluterecordbodycount on November 16th, 2008 11:25 am (UTC)
"Edgar's Evil Kite" goes to the tune of Robyn Hitchcock's "Brenda's Iron Sledge" in my head. (please don't call me Reg, it's not my naaame...)

I love that fact that he didn't revise it at all, like he knew full well it was crap and didn't care. How are you even getting through this stuff? You are MAGIC.
anatomiste on November 16th, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)
I just checked the biography again--he wrote it in three months and nine days, while he was ill, though he didn't die until over a year later. Long after his death someone hypothesized that he had the sort of syphilis that affects the brain, which might explain how trippy The Lair of the White Worm is, except it's really improbable that he actually had it.

How are you even getting through this stuff?

Masochism, voyeuristic curiosity about Victorian psychology, and the fun of thinking "Oh my GOD he didn't do that. He did!" every three pages. Also, it's a pretty short book--only about 150 pages on GoogleBooks.
the stag's daughterdoe_witch on November 16th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC)
This is definitely the kind of book that would have had me cracking up every two paragraphs. I love this. In that hating-it way.
anatomiste on November 18th, 2008 03:01 am (UTC)
I was cracking up every two paragraphs, and then every three paragraphs wanting to raise Bram Stoker from the dead and scream at him.
The Good Things Journalthemeindzeye on November 17th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC)
omg this sounds like it would be the Most Hilarious Book EvAr, except knowing Stoker, he would make it dry and horrible and making-with-the-sad. We should write a spoof of it! And make it hilarious, as you cannot possibly make it "good" in the traditional sense. *lmao*
anatomiste on November 18th, 2008 03:01 am (UTC)
If I could draw better, this post would have been written as a comic. The mongooses would have played a large role.
Johnny Gunsdefutata on November 21st, 2008 07:56 am (UTC)
Ohhhhhh mercy, you are a saint. As much as I love Dracula, the narrative is flawed enough that I have never really been super-interested in Stoker's other work (though I do sort of want to read The Lady of the Shroud and The Jewel of Seven Stars out of morbid curiosity). This was on the maybe-someday list, but it sho' ain't now.

Thanks for this. xD