Written by Bram Stoker
Electronic edition by Project Gutenberg, 2005
First published 1911, William Rider and Son, Ltd.
Photo of Bram Stoker (left): Wikipedia's Wikimedia Commons.
The story is set in central England in 1860. Young Adam Salton travels from his native Australia and stays with his granduncle Richard Salton, lord of the family estate in the heart of what was once the old kingdom of Mercia. Uncle Richard wants to make Adam his heir and is eager to show the young man the countryside and introduce him to its residents. But once they arrive at Lesser Hill, the ancestral home of the Saltons, Adam quickly finds himself involved in a series of suspenseful and increasingly horrific goings-on. His neighbors – Edgar Caswall, the new heir to the estate known as Castra Regis, and Arabella March who lives in her own mysterious house in a place called Diana's Grove – begin to seem more and more sinister. The Salton property is overrun with deadly black snakes, and Edgar Caswall's African servant Oolanga is a frightening presence.
Sir Nathaniel de Salis, another neighbor and an old friend of Uncle Richard's, fills Adam in on the local mystery of the White Worm, a large snake-like creature that's supposed to live in a huge pit in (or underneath) Arabella's home in Diana's Grove. This ancient gigantic worm eats anything that's thrown into its pit and occasionally even ventures out and hunts down its prey among the local inhabitants. Both Adam and Sir Nathaniel suspect that Arabella is connected with the White Worm's crimes. They set out to destroy the creature and possibly Arabella along with it.
Alongside the main story, there's another very strange and confusing plot line involving Edgar Caswall's fascination with Mesmerism. And Caswall also has an enormous kite in the shape of a hawk, which he's devised to scare away pigeons that have suddenly appeared in huge numbers all over the country, killing crops and changing weather patterns and generally causing all kinds of chaos.
OK, that's enough of that – you get the idea. I had really expected to like this a lot more than I did. There's the germ of a really good horror story here, but it just doesn't develop into anything. The plot gets sillier and sillier as it goes along. And the racist attitudes toward the "savage" Oolanga become a little too much after a while, even allowing for the historical setting. It's really hard to believe this was written by the same author who brought us Dracula. But by the time he published The Lair of the White Worm in 1911, Stoker was very ill (he died in 1912), and that may well have contributed to the poor writing. Whatever the reason, this is a very bad book. Which was made into a fairly mediocre horror film by Ken Russell back in the 1980s. And after reading the book, my advice would be: just see the movie.