Sheridan Le Fanu
Published 1872 76 pages
Laura and her father live a quiet life in their remote castle in the dense forests Styria. It is a solitary existence for young Laura, who has no companionship except for her governess and the occasional visits of neighbouring gentry. Into this lonely life comes the mysterious house guest, Carmilla.
Slowly Laura falls under Carmilla’s spell. Whilst she is both attracted and repulsed by Carmilla, she seems unable to find the energy to resist her.
A spate of sudden wasting deaths afflict the peasants in the countryside around the castle and Laura herself falls ill. Will they manage to work out the cause of her illness in time or will she just be the latest victim of the vampire Carmilla?
Written in 1872, Carmilla is one of the classics of the Vampire genre. The novella is one of five tales of the supernatural that is published under the name of “In a Glass Darkly”. Carmilla is the only vampire story in the collection.
Carmilla has elements of traditional Gothic fiction as well as drawing on Irish folklore too (Sheridan Le Fanu was Irish.) Carmilla has something of the Irish ban si (banshee)about her. The banshee is an Irish spirit who haunts a family and foretells or announces the deaths of family members. Like the banshee, she is attracted to Laura’s family and is her distant ancestress. She is also beautiful, wears white garments and has nocturnal habits.
The strange way in which Carmilla manages to insinuate herself into Laura’s family home so that she can then prey upon Laura also has its roots in Irish folklore. She arrives in a carriage with a mysterious attendant, engineers a carriage accident and pretends to be too unwell to travel. It is her attendant, a woman who pretends to be Carmilla’s mother, who talks Laura’s father into looking after Carmilla until she can return to collect her.
There is a strong lesbian element in the story (well strong for 1872 when the book was written!) Not only is Laura in danger of dying through her contact with Carmilla but there is a fear that she could become a lesbian. Perverse sexuality is always a part of the vampire genre and I think the lesbian overtones in the story were probably considered shockingly perverse for the time the book was written. The fear of female sexuality reappears in Dracula written by Bram Stoker some twenty or so years later.
The story is told in first person from Laura’s point of view and written about eight years after the events in the story happened. We know only what Laura knows, which is very little about Carmilla. Even at the end of the story, Carmilla’s motives and purpose remain a mystery. We shall never know who or what her mysterious attendants were, why they served her or where they went. We shall never know how Carmilla picked Laura to prey upon.
I had difficulty in bonding with Laura as I read this story. I think it was because Laura herself is not much of a heroine. In fact she is classic vampire bait! She is apathetic and seems unwilling to fight for her life. It’s almost like she wants to die. Although she by turns loves and loathes Carmilla she seems unwilling to address their relationship and extract herself from it. It is possible that Carmilla may have had her under some sort of vampire mind control but it is not clear from the story if this is the case. In fact, I think it is unlikely that Laura was under vampire control because even years after Carmilla has gone Laura is still haunted by her and often thinks she hears her footsteps.
I think the most interesting character for me is Baron Vordenburg, a man who had devoted himself to the study of vampire lore his whole life, who turns up in time to help save Laura and is also a most useful device for the story as his character explains all about vampires before the close of the story. Baron Vordenburg is obviously a forerunner to many vampire hunter/expert characters in vampire fiction from Van Helsing in Dracula to Giles the Watcher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Carmilla is a must read for any true fan of vampire fiction, not just because it is a good read, but because of how it has influenced so many other stories in this genre, most notably Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula.
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