The Lair of the White Worm repeats many of the themes and supernatural aspects of Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula (1897), without capturing any of the earlier novel’s escalating horror. The thoroughly human villain Edgar Caswell, like the vampire, has the hypnotic power to mesmerize the object of his affections, Lilia. Sir Nathaniel plays the role of father and educator that belonged to Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula. Like Lucy Westenra, who is ensnared by Dracula, Lilia is too weak to resist Caswell’s powers. Her cousin Mimi, a model of female strength like her counterpart, Mina Harker, is strong without sacrificing her feminine dependence on the masculine strength of her husband. Lady Arabella parallels the vampire in her ability to move between animal and human form and, like her vampiric predecessor Lucy Westenra, she is suspected of feeding on small children.
Instead of slowly building suspense, as in the vampire story, Stoker informs the reader of the identity of the white worm early in the novel and subsequently fails to construct much terror around her supernatural powers. Her character, however, has garnered critical fascination because of the overt sexual symbolism of the foul female worm in her putrid worm hole. Her portrait as beautiful and alluring but cold and dangerous supports the underlying misogyny many see in Dracula.
In The Lair of the White Worm, Stoker repeats the historical research that informed the structure of the supernatural in the earlier novel. This time the strange events are supported by Sir Nathaniel’s account of Mercia, an actual kingdom in fifth century Briton that was built on ancient Roman territory that had itself been built on land that belonged to the Druids. The nunnery, on the ruins of which Mercy Farm stands, dates from the early years of Christianity after the coming of Augustine and parallels Whitby Abbey in Dracula.
As in Dracula, the power of Christian goodness, this time symbolized by Mercy Farm, is pitted against the ancient power of evil—the white worm that has lived in a quagmire a hundred feet beneath the earth’s surface since the beginning of geologic time. Mercy Farm, like the dove held in thrall to the snake, must fight the powers of evil that emanate from Casta Regis and the pagan Diana’s Grove while Lilia becomes a bird held in thrall by Caswell and Lady Arabella.
The worm or dragon of the title draws on many Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic myths and implicitly on the British legend of Saint George and the Dragon that later became the basis for the early books of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1596). Spenser’s dragon, drawn with repugnant imagery similar to Stoker’s, is also a female representative of evil. The Lair of the White Worm has all the ingredients for a first-rate story of the supernatural, but it evinces Stoker’s loss of literary power through its disjointed narration and clumsy wording.
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