Redux

I paused my rewrite because I found, as I always find when I take a stab at NaNoWriMo that: a) I don’t really have enough time to burn in November (I need about 50 hours to write 50,000 words); b) The more I write on something, the more I realize that the constraints of NaNoWriMo—50,000 words, one month—are insufficient to write anything worth reading.

Going back over what I had written, however, I wasn’t displeased. It’s rough, obviously and needs to be polished, but I am going to carry on, filling in the blanks and figuring out a few of the blank spots.

I think the first freedom I’m going to take is to not try to follow the original structure. It’s too intensely “All Adam” followed by “All Edgar” followed by “whatever”. But the novel will work a lot better if we rotate between the characters.

Weirdly, when I pulled the document it up, it needed to be restored and the 5K+ words I’d written to wrap everything up were gone. Which sucks. I hope maybe they’ll turn up on the other machine. (Update: Checked and did find them, so, yay.)

One year I’ll take November off and see if I can put together a decent novel in 30 days, full time.

Lila…you got me on my knees

Working backward has been very rewarding. I now have good, satisfying conclusions for my characters—except Oolanga, though I think I know how he’ll play out, he’s gone, like halfway through the book and I’m not that far back. Also, a lot of the character development Stoker skipped is coming through.

Adam, for example, is a little too ordinary, a little too pragmatic, even to be the hero of the story. He’s sort of a catlyst and certainly a major player, and his arc involves coming to grips with unreality. I feel like that was Stoker’s aim for him originally, that he was the audience stand-in, for all the exposition that needed to happen…

Gonna interrupt myself and say, “Oy. Exposition. So much of it.” I’ll have to do a pass and eliminate it. A pass or twelve. Right now I have it clear in my head what’s going on, but if it’s spelled out, it’ll just be boring.

Anyway, I think the hero/primary character of the piece may end up being Sir Nathaniel. His arc will be a restorative one. Lady Arabella and Caswall himself have their heroic moments, believe it or not.

And then there’s Lila. She also has a huge role to play in the story. Right now, without all the characters doing their parts, the story would end with a worm-y victory. So I’m very pleased that there are no pointless characters (Oolanga…oolanga…the wind cries “oolanga”…but I’ll work that out, I swear) and that Lila’s ultimate fate is fitting.

But her fate isn’t her character, exactly. I have amped up her religiosity because it fits so well with her character and can explain Caswall’s attraction to her beyond just, y’know, she was just seventeen, and you know what I mean. But the “problem” with Lila’s character as it currently stands is, she’s just too damn pure. I think it’s clear from the doves—er, white pigeons—in Stoker’s book, that she is an emissary of St. Columba though he goes literally nowhere with that idea.

So, at every point, Lila’s trying to do the right thing.

And as I type that, I realize she will have one fatal flaw: Pride.

Worm White the of Lair

LotWW actually gets less cogent as it proceeds. It’s probably the nature of the human mind to try to puzzle out how confusing situations are going to resolve—which explains the sometimes frenzied, if fleeting, popularity of television shows like “Twin Peaks” or “Lost”.

In the former case, I believe the show was largely misunderstood—like, no one having seen a Lynch film would be likely to believe he was just making a murder mystery. But in the latter it was just “grab people’s attention…oh, crap, now what?” I’m speculating from what I’ve heard of both since I’ve seen neither, though my impression is that’s a common TV thing these days: Grab ’em up front, then sorta peter out when interest wanes. (My current policy is not to spend my very limited TV time on any dramatic show that isn’t fully completed. Who am I kidding, though? I have, like, ten minutes a day.)

The Lair could sort of be seen as a similar thing, though with Stoker’s (likely) mental deterioration coming into play. He probably didn’t remember all the things he had set up, much less how to resolve them all. And this creates some serious issues, some of which I’ve covered already. But the ones that concerns me now are the fates of our characters.

Mike Nelson pointed out quite testily that Adam running off with Mimi leaves Lila to fend for herself against the depredations of Adam and Arabella. That’s one of those arcs that is weirdly abbreviated: We get that Adam likes Mimi, and you can sorta see how he’d say “Lady Arabella wants her dead, so I’m taking to her Australia, which I can only do if we’re married!” But then they don’t go to Australia, and even their hiding—which puts Lila in jeopardy—is unsuccessful, and they know this and still they don’t fetch Lila from Watford Farms!

If we go back to Dracula—and I’m going by decades old memory here—generally speaking of Mina and Lucy (lol, not to be confused with Mimi and Lila…), Mina is a relatively pure example of femininity (let’s not delve too deeply into Stoker’s psyche) and Lucy is more the wild one, who has many suitors, who is easily seduced by Dracula, but also not his primary goal.

By contrast, Lila is the pure one here. In fact, while Mimi has some sort of snake-charming…awareness?…Lila seems to be the embodiment of the St. Columba nuns. But it’s just not fleshed out!

I can salvage Lila’s fate, though. And she’s the key to Caswall. Meanwhile, Arabella dies in her sleep! Edgar presumably dies being struck by lightning, though we don’t see it. Nathaniel and Richard are simply absent from the final scenes. And Adam and Mimi just wander around waiting for lightning to strike. Oy.

I think, though, the confrontation between Lila and Edgar is the proper climax (pre-climax?) of the book. And it’s very important for: a) the other characters to be doing something important; b) for them to believe that Edgar is indisposed, before leaving Lila endangered.

It was set up, but never utilized (yes, “utilized”) that Nathaniel was a spelunker. If our heroes were investigating the actual LotWW while Lila was imperiled, that would be something. Richard might play a factor in here. Arabella is, as always, the wild card. So far, in my retelling, she and Caswall are actually more tragic characters, though also villainous.

There will be, I’ve decided, a lot more explicit showdown between…uh…kite and snake. I think Caswall’s tragedy has to be more immediate and direct: He’s constantly, consciously choosing the worse of two paths. Regardless of his upbringing, he’s pretty aware of what he’s doing.

Arabella’s tragedy is lifelong. I haven’t quite worked it out, but she’s clearly had a relationship with a giant, evil snake for most of her life—and that’s bound to cause certain tensions as far as contemporary English lifestyles of 1900 go. She’s going to be a big factor in pushing Caswall in the wrong direction. But I think she may, at the end, choose the right path—though whether or not that saves her skin, I don’t know.

So I’m going to start writing backwards to see what outcomes feel right, and we’ll see if I can make the beginning and end meet in the middle.

Let’s Go Fly A Kite

I’ve had to take a couple days break due to non-NaNoWriMo related issues and now much confront Edgar Caswall and his Giant Kite. Although I feel like I get Caswall’s character, or what I think Stoker was going for, the real issue I’m having overall is the absolute pedestrian manner in which most of this prose is coming out.

I’m something of an anti-dialogue bigot—certainly for anything horror-related, sharing HP Lovecraft’s notion that it tends to remove the mystery. But I also see why writers do it so much: It’s easy. You just imagine a conversation and boom, there’s all your exposition without having to do any pesky, y’know, writing.

The real question is how much do I go into each character’s head. Stoker was in Adam’s head for most of the book, even to the point of when the book is wholly focused on Caswall, with Salton nowhere to be found, you get a pretty straight recounting of events without real thoughts or reactions.

Mixed bag: Familiarity breeds contempt. Distance, on the other hand, breeds confusion.

Meanwhile, the English concept of kite runners has been completely eclipsed on the Internet by that Persian (?) book. That makes researching a bitch. I tragically do not have any books on kite-related activities. Maybe. I’ll have to check the stacks.

The Kite and Mesmer’s Chest should be related. The weird thing about the chest, though, is that Stoker presents it to us in Chapter XIII as a mysterious puzzle—and then Chapter XIV is “The Chest Opens”. Well, who needs a mystery.

This is one of those pieces that doesn’t go anywhere, but I think it should. Obviously Stoker was influenced by Mesmer’s less reputable ideas vis a vis animal magnetism, as that is a theme here and throughout Dracula. The chest represents something Caswall should not be tempted by, at his peril, but we don’t have enough back-story on Caswall to appreciate his corruption, if that’s what this is to be.

Gonna hafta backfill.

And after this? More Oolanga. He’s just so barely in the story, it’s like he’s there to make a point (one for Stoker, and an entirely different one fro Price).

Smelling Death is the REAL Challenge

Once I realized that Oolanga just needed to be reframed and given more direct purpose in the story, writing about him wasn’t that hard. Granted, it’ll all have to be rewritten, but I assume that’s true of most everything so far. Chapter IX, too, was easy enough because it’s mostly exposition.

Obviously, all this stuff has to be rewritten. Nobody wants to read 50, 80, 100K words of exposition. I feel like if you’re going to ask people to read something, you need to make it as good as you can. Or at least good enough that you’re not betraying a disregard for their time.

Chapter X in the original manuscript is called Smelling Death. Now. I’m sure. At the time. This sounded pretty badass. Kinda spooky. But today it sounds like a joke, like A Mighty Wind. I’m keeping the title for now, but that’s the just the beginning of the issues here.

There is a pattern, I think, to the way this book is written: Most of the chapters seem to have two distinct parts. One part is referenced by the title. The other…is not. For example, Oolanga is about, naturally, Oolanga. But also about mongoose murder.

“Smelling Death” also has two parts: The hike in the country where Adam uses his mongoose procurer Davenport (not to be confused with his mongoose pimp, Ross) to trick Oolanga into using his powers to smell death to…uh…smell death. From this we learn that lots of people have died at Castra Regis. It is singularly unenlightening.

We also get Oolanga’s reverence at Diana’s Grove, once again suggesting some kind of awareness of and fealty to snake gods. Which again is contradicted by his later attempts to blackmail Arabella.

But the end of this chapter is also contradictory: Adam takes his new mongoose out only to have it put in the thrall of Lady Arabella. There’s some question as to whether this is because there are ordinary mongooses and extraordinary mongooses, and the former pose no problem to Lady Arabella while the latter must be murdered on site.

Then it’s pretty clear she uses some indirect means to kill the enthralled mongoose. The special mongoose, of course, lives until Oolanga sics it on her in his last chapter. (I am still struggling with mongooses as a story mechanic.)

So as this chapter did not help the story back then—oh, there’s yet even more exposition about the staring contest which leads into the next chapter “First Encounter”—I do not expect it to be of much help now. Perhaps I spoke to soon here and should simply elide it.

The big deal about Chapter XI is that it brings The Birds. And The Birds lead to The Kite. Well, I moved the birds up to Chapter VIII, making it absolutely clear that this is the second staring contest, that Oolanga was a part of it, and that something has been awakened in Lila that is in opposition to Caswall’s evil.

That’s right: I’m pretty convinced that Stoker had in mind a good vs. evil struggle between Caswall and Lila. He constantly refers to them battling and the whole book is actually more oriented around their battles of wills than it is the white worm! This raises further issues because Arabella is both motivated by ordinary pecuniary desires and the rather inscrutable motivations of an antediluvian monster, and this is very muddled in the original manuscript.

But for now, we actually get a bit of a break: Chapter XII is The Kite, and it and the subsequent chapters are a deep dive in Caswall’s encroaching madness. I see a parallel between him and Arabella. He has ordinary desires as well, but is also under some sort of (sadly poorly developed) mystical influence.

And we’re off!

Oolanga

Hoo boy.

As I mentioned in the very first post, Oolanga is problematic. A stock character of the day—the villainous witch doctor (usually, but not always black), the cannibal African, is treated with even less-than-usual-sensitivity for the time. This is compounded by Price’s edition which inserts “the N-word” some 20 times. If we look at the original edition, Stoker only uses that word between Edgar and Lady Arabella when they’re discussing murdering Oolanga, and Oolanga himself who picks up the intended slight when Arabella uses the word to him.

While I could argue quite forcefully that this word was not always (nor even mainly) used derogatorily in many places, it’s clear that Stoker’s intent is that derogatory use—and with Price switching out Stoker’s various euphemisms (“Christy Minstrel” being my favorite) and adding a genuine racist rant in the authorial voice, we once again have a mess.

So let’s just take a look at Oolanga as a character. What does he bring to the story?

  1. He’s spooky.
  2. He can smell death.
  3. He can pitch in when you’re struggling with dominating a young girl.
  4. He can flesh out Lady Arabella’s character.
  5. He can be Lady Arabella’s victim in a way that Adam has clear proof of Arabella’s nefariousness.
  6. He collects dead snakes.

To look at it, he’s actually pretty expendable. Less than, perhaps Uncle Richard, but still not exactly critical to a plot already overstuffed with thinly drawn characters and ideas.

But, come on! That’d be cheating! Oolanga, like the mongooses (oy), is an integral part of the “White Worm” experience, if you will. And I feel like something more was planned early on with his character that ended up in a muddle. To wit:

When we first meet Oolanga, he literally prostrates himself at Lady Arabella’s feet. This lends credence to the notion that she’s some kind of Snake Goddess and he recognizes it. Later, though, he’s developed a huge crush on her and tries to blackmail her into marrying him, which really detracts from the idea that she’s a Snake Goddess.

Now, obviously, our central problem in fixing LotWW is that whole question of what, precisely, is the Lady’s connection to the WW. We have many conflicting bits of information:

  1. Snakes both gather around her in herds or packs or there’s-no-word-for-it-because-snakes-don’t-actually-gather-togther or whatever, but they also get out of her way.
  2. She hates mongooses and shoots them WAY too much on sight.
  3. Except when she likes mongooses and enthralls them.
  4. She was bitten by a snake as a youngster while wandering in the woods, if we go by Price’s editing.
  5. While undoubtedly meant to clarify by creating the idea of a were-snake or vampire-thrall, it makes no sense that she would need to be wandering in the woods. The family manse is directly above the titular lair.

Am I avoiding the subject? Yeah, a little. But this is going to be a cyclical process. We’re going to need multiple passes to clarify things in a way that makes sense.

And nothing about Oolanga makes sense. He’s Edgar’s man, but Edgar almost never interacts with him, and casually suggests Arabella kill him if she’s put out by him. But he’s at home in psychic battles, and he’s the worst sort of witch doctor, so perhaps that can be our launching off point.

Caswall has some fascination with psychic domination, and it seems to be familial. Could it be that the witch-doctor has (or convinced Caswall he had) some insight into mind control techniques? That would explain Oolanga’s presence.

Oolanga’s own motivations are a little easier to comprehend. He is, at best, a huckster. At worst, he has a more sinister agenda, but we already have Arabella’s mundane marital issues AND Arabella’s White Worm issues AND Caswall—and we haven’t even gotten to the kite. Yeesh.

But how do we clarify his relationship with Arabella? Can we even, without fully grasping who and what Arabella is? I’m not sure. But if we view Oolanga as a huckster, not possessed of any particular keen sense regarding snake goddesses, we could put him in the reader’s shoes, discovering Arabella along with the rest of us.

I like this idea. Make Oolanga part-spooky and part-huckster, sometimes a lot more one than the other, who doesn’t realize how deep he’s in until it’s too late. He’s also going to have to be a bigger keystone to the events, much like Uncle Richard else why bother having him.

OK, I’m feeling better now. Wish me luck.

You’re Killing Me, Bram

OK, already in trouble. Actually, I’m lucky I made it this far.

Chapter IV has, at the tail end, Adam meeting Caswall. And Oolanga. We get just enough to tell that he doesn’t like either of them much. And at some point, there’s a dinner, and a tea, and some mind control between Caswall and Lila—the first of many struggles. But it’s all told out of sequence, with half of Chapter V being about mongooses.

I think I’m going to have Chapter V just be a dinner party (a la Dracula) where all the players meet. It’s more interesting, at first, to give Adam and Edgar a human conflict, i.e., they’re interested in the girls. Edgar will be more interested in Lila, and Adam in Mimi which is per the source material and makes sense.

But what if we have Adam bristle at Edgar’s haughtiness? Let’s have Edgar be a shut-in from a family that has been deeply weird for a long time, and deeply into various forms of mind control, as the book shows. So Edgar’s well aware of his station, and used to being catered to, and Adam’s easy nature could set off bad things in Edgar.

Very cool, but now we’re at Chapter VI, the significantly titled “White Worm”. How the hell do I, at this point, introduce the White Worm? I thought it would be cool to have there be inklings of the worm in the first chapter, but it’s a little early to be pulling back the curtain. So what did Bram do here?

Well, he had the staring contest with Lila, with Lady Arabella and Oolanga on Edgar’s side. And Mimi and (sorta but not really helpful) Adam on the other.

WTF. That’s too much. We have no sense of how any of this works yet. Let’s keep it between the four potential lovers. This can also be Adam’s first taste of something supernatural going on. (Although none of this was considered supernatural at the time. Mesmer and all that. Have to consider that.)

This is all done post-facto, and the second half of the chapter is taken up with worm exposition. There is literally no set up here. Sir Nathaniel just up and starts talking worms. Chapter VII just has Adam killing snakes with his mongoose—again, a somewhat difficult thing to introduce organically—there’s a digression about second sight that goes on for way too long considering it’s basically “Hey, uncle, any second sight in our family?” “No.”

And then they go back to the staring contest which I actually cannot tell from multiple readings is supposed to be the same one or a new one. He ends chapter V by saying he has an appointment at Mercy house the next day but it’s too early for him to have gone. Later in the evening, the staring contest is brought up again, and the next chapter, is all about Oolanga and keeping the matter away from Uncle Richard.

Oolanga serves no purpose yet. It’s possible (and less dangerous in Current Year) to leave him out but if I can figure out what he’s good for, I won’t do that. I truly believe that Stoker meant him to be a place for disapproving commentary on the state of race relations, particularly in the South (U.S.)—but at the same time he was dealing with (as noted) a stock character. (See Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard.)

You’re not helping me much, Bram.

Beginnings

The first five chapters of the book introduce us to all the players in the story: Adam Salton, Richard Salton (his uncle), Sir Nathaniel de Salis, the Lady Arabella, Edgar Caswall, Mimi and Lila Watford and their father, and the villainous Oolanga—and in chapter five they are all together at some sort of party. But keep in mind chapter V is about half dedicated to buying a mongoose, too.

Mongooses. Oy. We’ll set those aside for now.

Just for meta-purposes, let’s note that the original book has 50 chapters, so there’s an average of about six pages per chapter. That seems like a good size. The reader should be able to pick up the book and get a nice bit without feeling like he has to commit for the night.

OK, the first chapter has Richard and Adam meeting at the dock. Great. Then they spend the night on the ship. This is probably realistic, given that the journey from Southampton to Derbyshire by train, and then from Derbyshire’s center to the country where the action takes place would take many hours, but it doesn’t really suck the reader in, so we’ll have them leave immediately.

Also, their relationship is thinly drawn, to say the least, in the original. It seems like Richard wrote Adam one letter and the latter relocated from Australia. We’ll need to beef that up.

Chapter two is all Caswall, but not our story’s Caswall. It’s all about the family Caswall and is simultaneously lengthy and not very illuminating. Stoker is relying on tropes of 19th century physiognomy which come across as hokey as phrenology in these days. It’s fine if our character use this, but we shouldn’t narratively pass it off as credible.

More importantly, the Caswalls highlight one of the book’s first major problems. The Caswalls are essentially vampire characters. Not undead, but arrogant, domineering, semi-hypnotists. I believe the whole struggle with the kite that dominates the second quarter of the book is due to Edgar Caswall being a dick, not so much that he’s the great evil, which is The White Worm. His struggle with the kite and Mesmer’s box is his own struggle for his soul, but this is (again) not well delineated.

This idea opens up a lot of possibilities for tying together Castra Regis and Diana’s Grove, but we’ll have to find a more organic way of getting it to the reader than just having Sir Nathaniel come over and explain everything.

Chapter III is expository, again, all about Diana’s Grove. We can drop out some (all) of the historical stuff—alluding to it as needed—and use this chapter to describe the area in which the story takes place. There’s a reference to “Cheshire Vale” but all we know about it is that it isn’t much of a vale. Chapter III kind of makes hash out of Chapter I, as they all trot off to Liverpool like it wasn’t 80 miles away and they’re all still using horse and carriage. But this is so they can actually meet Caswall coming in from West Africa.

Let’s have Caswall be on site in Chapter I. This will give us some urgency. I’m going to call the site of the story Sulla Downs, for a variety of unimportant reasons. The four houses (Castra Regis, Diana’s Grove, Lesser Hill and Doom Tower) will be arranged in a loose trapezoid they call The Quadrangle. The physical space between the four houses was inconsistently defined, so I’m going to lay it out in concrete early on. For me as a reader, this creates more suspense as it feels like the writer is less able to cheat.

For me as a writer, this is a pain in the ass, unless I can cheat without the reader noticing, but that’s life.

In Chapter IV, we meet Lady Arabella, who is having car(riage) problems. She’s broken a spring, and Adam is all set to fix it. This is important to Adam’s character development but I can see absolutely no reason for him to actually be carrying the tools to fix the spring at the time—Stoker also describes the spring as a heavy one and I’m not sure how you’d fix that without a forge. I could research carriage repair or I could just say the spring slipped and have him use his strength to re-set it.

The whole thing with Lady Arabella is a kind of is-she-or-isn’t-she The (literal) White Worm, but never is she or is she not directly connect to the worm. Stoker could not be more obvious here, as he could not be more confusing later on, when the characters talk to themselves with utter confidence that she is.

I think the answer lies in these ancient houses, which we are told are ancient, and on whose history many words are spilled. We need to tie in the Druids, the convent and the…March’s? Crap, we don’t even have a name for the family.

We have our work cut out for us.

Can This Book Be Saved?

I am an unabashed fan of the podcast “372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back” (hosted by Rifftrax’s very own Mike Nelson and Conor Lastowka), and have chuckled and groaned along with all the bad books they’ve read. The best bad books are generally those written by earnest but incompetent people (granting a certain magic to the cynicism produced by collaborations such as Tekwar) and one can read along, enjoying the intent (however spectacularly failed) without much chagrin over the loss to literature.

But, as a horror aficionado, and as a lover of turn-of-the-century literature, Lair of the White Worm hit me where I lived: Here was a book by a competent writer with not just an iconic work under his belt, but perhaps the iconic horror classic of all time, Dracula. Written in the last year of his life, Bram Stoker’s final work introduces a number of chilling concepts. It also introduces assorted disposable characters, and a severe lack of continuity, but let’s focus on the chilling concepts.

As indicated in the title, Lair of the White Worm is about a worm—which, as any devotee of fantasy or horror knows is not generally meant to refer the humble earthworm but instead the wyrm, a snake or even more commonly, a dragon. Old school D&D players may recall the adventures of David Trampier’s lovable tough-talking, pool-shooting dragon named “Wormy”.

Wormy image.png

The book does, in fact, feature a worm, though there is considerable confusion as to the nature and origin of said worm. It features, obliquely, a lair, as well. You may take this and argue with a harrumph, “Well, sir, the book has delivered on what it promised and therefore should not be criticized,” but probably only if you enjoy channeling the late English character actor Terry-Thomas.

Fact is, this book is a mess. There was some confusion early on about it being a novella, but it is 75,000 words long. For Stoker, this might be a novella, given that Dracula is a whopping 161,000 words long, but in standard publishing format, that word count represents 300 pages. Even so, it is thinly drawn. Rich in concept, which is surprisingly easy to do if you never actually flesh anything out.

Adding to the chaos is the edition published in the ’20s after an editor by the name of David Price abridged the work. Price cut about 25% of the word count which definitely makes the book…shorter. Then he added some words, doubtless meant to clarify, which definitely made the book…longer. It’s not his fault, really: What Stoker meant to convey is not at all clear.

And hence this blog. What if we took the ideas Stoker presented and filled in some of the blanks? Could it be made into worthwhile reading? It presents many challenges, not the least of which is a stock character of the time—the degenerate African witch-doctor—who would be “problematic” by modern standards. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The best way to get started is to…get started. So, let us begin.