For information on Project Gutenberg and their affiliates, and tips on using these files on your reading device, please refer to my Newsletter: My NEXT Step in Technology.
Before I start with the review, I want to speak of a major issue
with this book. The original version, as written by Bram Stoker, was published in 1911, with a total of forty chapters. In 1925, an extremely abridged version
was published, with over one hundred pages removed and the final eleven chapters reduced to five, according to Wikipedia. Normally, I do not check out
books I am reading with Wikipedia until I finish, or am nearly finished because I want to form my own opinion, but this book, as I had downloaded it from
Project Gutenberg, was just terrible!. I searched and searched, and FINALLY found a free EPUB version at the link above at MobileReads. (When you reach
this page, click on the little arrows next to the word "Horror" in red, and the link will appear to download onto your desktop or device.) Since I was already
half through the Project Gutenberg version, I wondered if the abridgment only concerned those last eleven chapters, so I went back to the beginning. The very
first sentence had been changed! So I began reading again, from the very beginning and it was like reading a whole different book! Stoker wrote with artistic
quality, and whoever did the abridgment lacked literary skills, and not only that, they changed the character of the book. For instance, the African who
practices Voodoo was referred to as a "nigger" in the abridged version. Stoker referred to him as a Negro most of the time. There is SO much missing, that the
story lacks cohesion and makes no sense in the abridged version, and comes across as just plain stupid. Stoker was not stupid, and he was a skilled
writer. HIS original version builds in mystery and intensity. Yet, the version that is most known is apparently the abridged version. So therefore, I am
warning you from the start, DO NOT read anything but the original 1911 publication. Amazon also has it, but not free. This is not the only time Stoker's original
writing has been changed, and I wonder why people felt it was necessary to rewrite this book. Incidentally, the MobileReads download also includes
Stoker loosely based his story on the legend of the Lambton Worm of Northeast England; (Stoker was Irish); worm meaning dragon, who is eventually destroyed by being chopped into bits that couldn't heal together. In Stoker's novel it is blown to smithereens with explosives.
The story begins as Adam Salton arrives in England from Australia, his lifelong home, after receiving a letter from his grand-uncle, Richard Salton, now an old gentleman in his eighties. Both are thrilled to meet their only surviving relative, unknown to each other until recently. The two immediately become warm friends, and the elder makes it known, with relief, that he now has a relation to whom he can will his ample estate, Lesser Hill, (not knowing that Adam himself is quite rich). Mr. Salton has tracked the young man through Adam's research and lectures of Roman relics, and the elder is anxious to give his nephew a tour through parts of England with a rich Roman heritage, especially near Salton's own estate, the old kingdom of Mercia. And what is even more exciting is that Edgar Caswell, the only known living heir to the main estate, Castra Regis, is also returning home. Castra Regis has been unoccupied by a Caswell for six generations because of a scandalous quarrel. We never do find out what that's all about, but we do know that the Caswells have a reputation for being a mean, selfish, and creepy lot.
When the Saltons arrive home, they are met by Richard's best friend, Sir Nathaniel de Salis from nearby Doom Tower of Derbyshire. Adam and Sir Nathaniel strike up a relationship as warm as that of uncle and nephew. In fact, soon after the book begins, Richard Salton is barely mentioned. All the unraveling of the terrible mysteries hanging over Mercia are undertaken by Adam and Sir Nathaniel, the elder who is an expert in local history. The next day, Sir Nathaniel takes Adam for a walk, explaining the Roman history of the neighboring land and estates, one being Diana's Grove, which had also been known as the Lair of the White Worm, and another called Mercy Farm.
On the way to meet the arrival of Edgar Caswell, the two Saltons and Sir Nathaniel happen upon a woman with a broken spring in her carriage. Lady Arabella March, a beautiful but strikingly unusual and mysterious woman dressed in a tight white gown, sweetly laments her unfortunate situation. Adam, who exclaims that he is skilled at mending all such things from his experience in Australia, quickly fixes the problem. Just then, he notices some black snakes near a heap of stones, but before he can kill them, Lady Arabella seems to have charmed them away.
I want to make a personal comment here: the one aspect of this story that I found most repugnant and offensive is Stoker's apparent oblivion toward animal cruelty. Throughout the story, Adam purchases one mongoose after another to kill snakes, which are portrayed as evil. SNAKES ARE NOT EVIL. And the cruelty toward each mongoose and its subsequent death is treated with apathy.
Though Lady Arabella seems cordial enough, Adam notes a certain discomfort with her, even when she makes an open invitation to him to visit her estate, Diana's Grove. Presently, they both go their separate ways to meet Edgar at the ship, the West African.
Upon meeting him, Adam also has a "feeling of repugnance at the man's face." And an even worse one when he meets Caswell's black servant, Oolanga. It is obvious that the goal of Lady Arabella is to capture Caswell—as a move toward financial security because her own estate continues to suffer from increasing, unpayable debt.
I read one review that said Stoker was racist. I disagree. It is true that Oolanga is portrayed as a hideous, evil savage. But the two white people that are also evil, that is, Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswell, are portrayed in an equally insulting manner. If Oolanga had been singled out as evil because he was black, then I would say it was racist. In my opinion, Stoker is simply using the strongest descriptions for all three of these people to convey to the readers that they are the bad guys, black or white. But I have to say, as mentioned above, that the horrible abridged version does seem racist, but that is not what Stoker wrote!
Later that evening, when all are gathered for the homecoming party at Castra Regis, Adam notes how Lady Arabella clings to Edgar Caswell. He, however, has eyes for a beautiful young lady, Lilla Watford, granddaughter of Michael Watford, a tenant of Caswell who lives at Mercy Farm. Adam is immediately struck with her younger cousin, Mimi, who had been born in Burma when her father was killed in the service. Lilla's father is also deceased, and the two had grown up together as sisters with their grandfather. Adam spends the entire evening with Mimi, and is invited to visit the farm.
The visit turns out very upsetting, because Caswell also visits Mercy Farm at the same time. And Adam notices a terrible, frightening exchange between Edgar and Lilla—which he describes as "a hawk and a pigeon"—a hypnotic effect attempted by the evil man toward the meek lady. It is afterward learned that one of Caswell's ancestors was a student of Mesmer.
Meanwhile, Sir Nathaniel and Adam have more and more to discuss, keeping their disturbing questions secret from Mr. Salter, so as not to excite or alarm the old man, and fortunately, he often has business away from home. What is really going on between Caswell and Lilla? And who or what is Lady Arabella? Slowly, but surely Adam and Sir Nathaniel discover an underlying evil force within Mercia, and Adam vows to stop it.
As I said above, once I switched to the original 1911 version, I really liked this story. I stress again, DO NOT read the abridged version—it is terrible and inaccurate, and accounts for the bad reviews this book has received. I cannot understand why it is that version that is most readily available. Look for the one with forty chapters, and you will know it is the correct one. Any fan of Stoker's repertoire should make a point to read this novel.
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