LURE OF THE WHITE WORM
Ken Russell’s 1988 movie explodes Bram Stoker’s
‘THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM’ into gore, splatter,
nudity, sensationalism, and massive phallic allusions.
Dublin-born Stoker also created one of the twentieth-century’s
most persistent mythologies in his earlier novel ‘DRACULA’.
In this exploration Andrew Darlington suggests that both
works were born out of Stoker’s perverse and repressed
sexual problems – and that this time Ken Russell’s
visual overkill has perhaps got it more to rights!
‘…an affair of ghastly mystery which has no bottom and no end –
with forces of the most unnerving kind, which had their origins
in an age when the world was different from the world which
we know. We are going back to the origin of superstition –
to an age when dragons tore each other in their slime.
We must fear nothing – no conclusion, however
improbable, almost impossible it may be…’
(Bram Stoker, ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’, 1911)
Ken Russell’s ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’ (1988) is a movie, DVD, download. It is gore, splatter, nudity, sensationalism, and massive phallic allusion. All the things Russell is most reviled for camping into absurdity. Yet perhaps this time he’s got it more to rights. The screenplay is drawn from Bram Stoker’s last novel of the weird, written the year before his death, and fourteen years after he’d published his most enduring fantasy – ‘Dracula’ (1897). And it’s these two novels in particular that Stoker’s biographer (and great-nephew) Daniel Farson singles out as evidence of a twisted sexual symbolism wriggling through his work, fetishisms of which Stoker himself was unaware.
The writer’s wife – Florence, was frigid. And he died of Locomotor Ataxia, one of the tertiary stages of syphilis. To Farson, these facts suggest a haunting guilt complex derived from pathologically suppressed desires, an attraction/repulsion duality in Stoker’s attitudes to his own natural, but frustrated libidinous urges. A disturbing inner conflict charged with perverted erotic potential, all wrapped up in a swirling cloak of suffocating Victorian morality…
Draw your own conclusions.
The theory is reinforced by the disclosure that Stoker was an ardent advocate of press censorship, externalising his own struggle to screw down those instincts within himself he found ‘both thrilling and repulsive’. He wrote revealingly (in ‘The Nineteenth Century’ magazine, 1908) that ‘the only emotions which in the long run harm, are those arising from sex impulses.’ Therefore, it could be argued that the porn-lite content that Ken Russell explodes into visually garish flash-frames is merely a libidinous content which Stoker himself circles warily, but is nevertheless there, investing the prose with its intense subliminal lure, its forbiddingly dark undercurrents. But if the worm of the title is a huge white rippling amputated penis of primal power, and if vampirism in an exercise in S/M sado-erotic power-play, then the writing itself seldom admits to more than veiled suggestions.
Lady Arabella of Diana’s Grove, asquat the bottomless shaft of the worm is ‘clad in some kind of soft white stuff, which clung close to her form, showing to the full every movement of her sinuous figure.’ Hardly torrid stuff. Yet shrieking for its expression. So that when Lady Arabella – who is herself the shape-changing worm, muses ‘she must lure him to the White Worm’s hole’ there’s perhaps more than just an unconscious Freudian double entendre there? Even Freud himself concurs, opining that a ‘morbid dream always signifies repressed desire.’
The duality is more vividly displayed in ‘Dracula’ when Stoker’s protagonist, Jonathan Harker, is assailed by three female vampires, and he experiences ‘some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips… there was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive.’ Compare that passage to one from ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’ in which Arabella ‘tore off her clothes with feverish fingers and in full enjoyment of her natural freedom, stretching her slim figure in animal delight. Then she lay down on the sofa – to await her victim.’ In both cases the male target of female sexuality is not lover – but victim! The image of woman is as a strange and terrible predator, and to submit to the desires they enflame is to invite destruction. Sex is deadlier than AIDS.
Just as he drew on earlier sources for Dracula, Stoker was also using an already familiar theme when he created ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’. In the novel he charts its derivation, ‘in the dawn of the language, the word ‘worm’ had a somewhat different meaning from that in use today. It was 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’…’ He goes on to quote Indian legend. While other references can be traced back through Oroubus, the Lambton worm, the Spindleston Hough and Whitby worms, and forward to Robert E Howard’s powerful antediluvian fantasy “The Valley Of The Worm” (in ‘Weird Tales’, February 1934). Hence Stoker worked within, and contributed to, myth-symbols of the universal shared unconscious. And if his sexual hang-ups give these Jungian archetypes their power, then the success of those images must relate to the kinks in us all…
He joined tragedian Henry Irving – the Larry Olivier of his day, as the actor-manager’s deputy, business and touring manager. Their unique association lasted until the actor’s death in 1905, a period retrospected by Stoker’s worms-eye view ‘Reminiscences Of Henry Irving’ (1906). Despite the birth of one son (Noel), sexual relations with Florence didn’t survive far into a marriage that rapidly devolved into a mere formal domestic arrangement. Stoker’s passions were instead entirely devoted to promoting a client he saw through the eyes of near hero-worship. He even confessed to becoming hysterically overcome by the intensity of Irving’s rendition of Thomas Hood’s tragic poem “The Dream Of Eugene Aram”, and he jealously guarded the exclusivity of their relationship. Yet through the Pop star period of Irving’s peak years (with the legendary Ellen Terry) at the Lyceum Theatre, the genial Stoker – who managed productions and international tours, also found time to produce eleven novels! His themes spread across a wide spectrum, from children’s stories and highly sentimental romances to the archetypal Gothic horror classics he’s remembered for – if only through Late Night TV Horror reruns.
Stoker would have been familiar with pre-existing vampire lore, perhaps even connecting it to the Irish blood-sucking demon known in Gaelic as ‘Dearg-dul’ or ‘Dragdul’. And he’d have read vampirism’s literary antecedents, in particular “The Vampyre” (1819), a short story concerning the menacing Lord Ruthven. Originally the tale was attributed to Lord Byron, a view later revised. It’s now thought to be based on Byron’s foppishly enigmatic persona, but written by his friend and ‘personal physician’ Dr John Polidori. Polidori hatched the idea at the famous ghost-story session of 1816 at Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva. An event later to be filmed in full gore, splatter, nudity and sensationalism by Ken Russell as ‘Gothic’ (1986), with a cast of Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by Julian Sands), Mary ‘Shelley’ Wollstencraft (Natasha Richardson, writing her ‘Frankenstein’), Byron (Gabriel Byrne), Polidori (Timothy Spall) and Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr).
Yet there are other literary bloodlines. Stoker probably leeched from an 1847 book ‘Varney The Vampyre’ by Thomas Presket Prest, and Sheridan Le Fanu’s sensual female vampire tale “Carmilla” included in the 1872 collection ‘In A Glass Darkly’. The earlier historical roots of the vampire myth to Prince Vlad Tepes ‘the Impaler’, have been widely documented to death – or undeath, elsewhere, and don’t need re-animation here. What Stoker adds to all this is the compulsive power of obsession, the dark lure of psychosexual fetishism.
After Irving’s death Stoker fought against illness brought on by years of overwork in the theatre, complicated by worries generated by the actor’s financial decline. He didn’t live to see ‘Dracula’s block-busting worldwide book sales in its later years, nor its spectacular progress as a stage play – touring to full houses through the 1920’s with a fanged Hamilton Deane in the title role, or its phenomenal impact as a movie series. And ‘The Lair Of The White Worm’ from 1911, unlike its hypnotic and tightly-plotted predecessor, is a stilted, disjointed, poorly-constructed long drag of prose which arch-fantasist HP Lovecraft dismissed as ‘so bad that many have mistaken it for a burlesque.’
The novel plot meanders aimlessly through bird-scaring kites, a snake-killing mongoose, another mongoose (in this way I avoid the necessity of finding the plural for mongoose!), psychic battles of will, a bound chest that once belonged to proto-hypnotist Mesmer… and, of course, the monstrous worm – a unique synthesis of the irrepressible power of the rampant male organ, and a woman of terrifyingly destructive sexuality contained in one single nightmare image. Russell’s screenplay tightens the narrative. Peter Capaldi is Angus Flint, an archaeologist who first excavates the skull of a monstrous worm. Amanda Donohoe becomes Lady Sylvia Marsh of the stately Temple House, sited above caverns in which the supposedly-extinct worm still lurks. And Catherine Oxenberg who is the lovely Eve Trent, kidnapped to be its sacrificial victim.
The marked decline in prose style has been mischievously attributed to Stoker’s use of unacknowledged ghost-writers, to publisher tampering, or just to his collapsing health. He died in London, aged 64 – in 1912. His death certificate tactfully cites the cause as ‘exhaustion’. He never visited the Romanian province of Transylvania, and as far as can be ascertained he remains dead, yet his best work largely stays in print, and his short stories continued to be run in horror pulps – his “The Secret Of Growing Gold” appearing in ‘Famous Fantastic Mysteries’ magazine as late as 1946. His literary powers were limited and remain unrecognised beyond footnotes on the Gothic sub-genre. His genius – if genius in was, lies in his ability to project single images of obsessive compulsion that translate ideally into more visual media.
|Bram Stoker in 'Famous Fantastic Mysteries' August 1946|
Vampirism itself has been given a scientific justification in the SF setting of Richard Matheson’s exquisitely chilling ‘I Am Legend’ (1954), filmed three times – first as ‘The Last Man On Earth’ (1964) with Vincent Price, then as ‘The Omega Man’ (1971) with Charlton Heston, and finally as ‘I Am Legend’ (2007) with Will Smith. The ‘Science Of Draculogy’ has been further updated through a series of revisionist vampire fiction from Stephen King (‘Salem’s Lot’, 1975), Ann Rice (‘Interview With A Vampire’, 1976), Chelsea Quinn Yarbo (the ‘Count Saint-Germain’ novel-cycle, from 1978), George RR Martin (‘Fevre Dream’, 1982), Brian Stableford (his alternate history vampire world ‘Empire Of Fear’, 1988), and the teen-franchise ignited by Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ novel-series, from 2005).
But there have been other Stoker movie-isations preceding Ken Russell’s splatter ‘n’ gore foray. ‘The Awakening’ (1980) by Robert Solo again stars Charlton Heston in an involved plot featuring Egyptologist Matthew Corbeck who tinkers with the Mummy of the evil incestuous Queen Kara (played by Susannah York), who is subsequently reincarnated as Corbeck’s daughter. It’s based on Stoker’s 1902 ‘The Jewel Of The Seven Stars’…
Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ notwithstanding, only the works of equally quirky and equally sexually screwed-up Edgar Allen Poe can have generated such a vast movie legacy. Bram Stoker was never a ‘respectable’ author, always an ‘outsider’ excluded from the literary establishment, but the subsequent video and DVD release of Ken Russell’s brash and flawed movie carries his perverse imaginings over into the 1990’s and beyond. Something few of his more ‘respectable’ literary contemporaries can claim.
‘…let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been.
In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over,
in France, in India, even in the Chersonese; and in China,
so far from us in all ways, there even is he,
and the peoples fear him at this day…’
(‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker)
BRAM STOKER: BIBLIOGRAPHY
‘THE PRIMROSE PATH’ (1875)
‘THE SNAKE’S PASS’ (1890)
‘THE WATTER’S MOU’ (1894)
‘THE SHOULDER OF SHASTA’ (1895)
‘MISS BETTY’ (1898)
‘THE MYSTERY OF THE SEA’ (1902)
‘THE JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS’ (1903)
‘THE GATES OF LIFE’ (aka ‘The Man’) (1905)
‘LADY ATHLYNE’ (1908)
‘THE LADY OF THE SHROUD’ (1909)
‘THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM’ (1911)
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
‘UNDER THE SUNSET’ (1881), eight fairy-tales for children
‘SNOWBOUND: THE RECORD OF A THEATRICAL TOURING PARTY’ (1908) ‘DRACULA’S GUEST AND OTHER WEIRD STORIES’ (1914)
‘THE BRAM STOKER BEDSIDE COMPANION’ (Taplinger Pub Co, 1973) ten stories including “Dracula’s Guest”, extracted from an unpublished chapter from the ‘Dracula’ novel
‘THE MAN WHO WROTE DRACULA: A BIOGRAPHY OF BRAM STOKER’ by Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1975)
‘THE ESSENTIAL DRACULA’ fully illustrated and annotated edition by Raymond T McNally and Radu Florescu (Mayflower, 1980 USA)