Monday, January 13, 2014

The Lair of the White Worm

After seeing The Lair of the White Worm again, the movie version with Amanda Donohoe and that old staple of British film, Hugh Grant, I decided once again to read the book by Bram Stoker. I've read several of Stoker's books, one of my favorite of which is The Jewel of Seven Stars, but was not prepared for the tale I thought I knew from the movie. The two versions, book and movie, could not be more different and not just in the usual "we can make it better and more spectacular" way of movie making. I was not prepared for the real story, as told by Stoker.

Lady Arabella March is quite the exotic female, at least from a 19th century perspective, in her all white gowns, sinuous movements, and determination to catch a wealthy husband in the person of Mr. Caswall, the current heir to an ancient stone pile called Castra Regis, a great tower that looms over the land of ancient Mercia like the Tower of Destruction in a deck of tarot cards, lightning blasting it to hell.

Adam Salton is the distant cousin of Mr. Salton who has no heirs and has made Adam his heir. The younger Mr. Salton has come all the way from Australia to meet his cousin and accept his inheritance. Into this genial partnership comes Mr. Nathaniel, local landowner and historian, and the two girls of Mercy Farm, Mimi and Lilla.

Mr. Caswall, lately of Africa, brings with him an evil looking Negro, Oolanga, whose reputation is of dark and powerful magics. Caswall and Oolanga are quite interested in their tenants, Mimi and Lilla, and spend a great deal of time at Mercy Farm in a struggle of wills with Lilla. Caswall is backed in this endeavor by Lady Arabella and Oolanga while Mimi pits the force of her will against them to shore up Lilla's flagging spirit.

The Lair of the White Worm offers several diabolical intrigues, one of which is Caswall's kite, a giant affair up which he sends runners of magnesium ribbon and weights, and which scares all the local birds from the area while it flies, a dark harbinger of the doom to come and the weighty presence of evil weighing down on the countryside from the Tower.

Caswall is the direct descendent and heir of a previous Caswall who learned mesmerism from Mesmer himself and came away with machines that have been stored in a trunk in one of the servant's rooms. The tower attic rooms are filled with the mementos of past Castra Regis heirs and all spread a miasma of darker appetites.

Lady Arabella, for all her sinuous and somewhat repugnant movements in her white gowns, spreads her own discord throughout the area and is at the heart of the legend of the great white worm, a denizen of Mercia from ancient times. Adam Salton becomes a witness to her nightly walks and to the death and destruction that follow in her wake.

I found Stoker's writer more florid than in previous books and even a bit fantastical in his premise that a woman bitten by a snake could actually transform a lithe and slender body into the massive bulk of an ancient worm that has evolved sufficiently to be aware of itself in human and worm form and be just as malignant in both. The addition of several mongooses (mongeese?) seemed little more than a bit of fancy thrown in that had nothing to do with the final outcome of the story. Even Oolanga's malign presence and presumption did little to add to the story or earn out his mention since he was soon lost to Lady Arabella's venomous intentions. Adam Salter's cousin offered little more depth than the reason for Adam being in England and thrust into this seething morass of intrigues and ancient horror.

Overall, The Lair of the White Worm is long on words and short on meat, depth, and complexity, although the machinations of the various cabals become quite entangled. Much was left to wither and die while Stoker moved on with the main focus of his story -- setting up the final spectacular destruction of Lady Arabella, Mr. Caswall, and the Tower.

The movie, released in 1988, was quite a bit different from the book in almost all respects. There is a Mercy Farm and the orphaned girls, Mary and Eve Trent, whose parents disappeared the previous year, Lady Sylvia Marsh, the owner of Temple House (which was Diana's Grove in the book), and Lord James D'Ampton, who is a conflation of Mr. Caswall and Adam Salton and like neither, except in being a wealthy landowner and the last in a long line of D'Amptons descended from the D'Ampton who killed the great white worm of legend.

Unlike Lady Arabella March, Lady Sylvia Marsh, played by Amanda Donohoe, scantily clad in black leather and black clothing, is an immortal who worships and is priestess for Dionyn, the great white worm of legend. True to the determination of movies to make a fantastic story even more fantastic and adding the larges helping of sex and seduction possible while amping up the volume on the original horror. There is a single mention of being bitten by a snake as a child and dealing with her fear of snakes by playing Snakes and Ladders while she weeps without a single tear in Hugh Grant's arms, but there is nothing beyond Amanda Donohoe's seductive charms and patently obvious malign intentions that signal she is at the heart of the mystery of the great white worm. The movie is low budget but high on the sex and shock scale. The added appeal of Catherine Oxenburg, Hugh Grant, and Amanda Donohoe ramp up the screen appeal to go with the spectacular, often psychedelic, montages of monsters, Christ, elaborately carved and prodigiously pointed dildos and Amanda Donohoe and the Romans ravaging virginal nuns while Donohoe sprouts 10-inch long fangs while painted blue. It is quite the spectacle.

Stoker may have had more in mind for The Lair of the White Worm, but he seems to have run out of steam or inspiration or something because very little of it hangs together in a cohesive tapestry of evil and good in earnest battle. Much was offered, but few connections made and fewer explanations given. The best I can give is 3/5 stars and a wish for more to fill in the blanks, something I doubt which will come about unless Stoker is resurrected or someone successfully channels him. I felt I had been to a banquet and left wanting as though the gorgeous spread were merely cardboard and pretty paint.

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