Author: Sheridan Le Fanu
Publication Date: 1871
In a nutshell: Surprisingly still-relevant Gothic novella that established most modern vampiric tropes
Summary: A mysterious and beautiful young girl is fostered by an aristocratic family in their castle. The girl and her host’s daughter develop a passionate friendship, but strange deaths begin to plague the nearby village.
Carmilla is one of those nice little jewels you come across from time to time. Since I’m going through the whole canon of Gothic literature I knew that sooner or later I’d have to read it. But I wasn’t particularly excited about this book, to me the idea of it screamed yawn-inducing old-fashioned bore.
What a surprise, Carmilla reads so easily. And you don’t need to make the slightest effort to get plunged into the story after the first couple of pages. In this respect it is pretty different from other famous Victorian novels that may have literary or historical interest but that are rather challenging reads (a couple of famous examples that spring to mind: The Turn of the Screw and Wuthering Heights.)
And not only the writing is digestible, but the horror is also quite relevant to modern tastes. Despite consisting of little else that the more standard vampiric tropes (especially in their sexy-vampire variety), these don’t read old and tired but pleasantly quintessential. The fact that Le Fanu was setting up most of the canonical features of contemporary vampire fiction infuses his story with some sort of evergreen freshness.
Despite not offering anything new to the contemporary reader, the decadent vampiric imagery is so competently crafted that you can’t but let yourself draw by the story as if it was the first time you heard of vampires.
Carmilla instantly transports you to that non-existing realm where all the Hammer films’ vampires reside, to all those bedrooms were a vulnerable damsel has ever lain asleep bare-necked.
But the thing is that this guy, Le Fanu, was virtually inventing the whole thing here. There had been vampyre tales before, but he gave to the genre the definitive contemporary form that a couple of decades later Bram Stoker finished to perfect.
Without the lesbian undertone, Carmilla would have been good, with it is excellent. If Le Fanu had managed to create a full-length novel out of this story, I’m sure that Carmilla would be as celebrated as Dracula and would have become one of the cornerstones of gay lit.
Of course, the lesbianism is only an undertone. It was the 19th century after all. Everything sex had to be subtly implied back then, let alone “sexual inversion.” Probably the word “lesbian” wasn’t even printed in all of the whole century’s literature. So here we just have scenes that are almost sexual but not completely so.
But it doesn’t really matter, this very incompleteness is what makes things even sexier.
Here is an example passage of the crypto-lesbianism you can find in Carmilla:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.” Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.
Excellent Gothic atmosphere
A shiny 9 out of 10 for the Gothic imagery.
You get here the ever present solitary castle, and it’s perfectly brooding; the recurring moonlit garden, and it’s deliciously threatening; the always mysterious masked ball, and it’s glamourous and unsettling. Everything familiar is in here, everything is superbly done.
Here’s an example I particularly liked of the excellently crafted eeriness:
… now declared that when the moon shone with a light so intense it was well known that it indicated a special spiritual activity. The effect of the full moon in such a state of brilliancy was manifold. It acted on dreams, it acted on lunacy, it acted on nervous people, it had marvelous physical influences connected with life. Mademoiselle related that her cousin, who was mate of a merchant ship, having taken a nap on deck on such a night, lying on his back, with his face full in the light on the moon, had wakened, after a dream of an old woman clawing him by the cheek, with his features horribly drawn to one side; and his countenance had never quite recovered its equilibrium.
Victorians will be Victorians. And their fiction was, well, Victorian. This means they didn’t have that cinematic concept of plot that we have in which the resolution has to be exciting and must be actually shown.
Carmilla is no exception and it’s “Victorianism” becomes really apparent at the end. Whereas the rest of the novella could be pretty much similar to the contemporary style of “showing” the action, the resolution of the story is rather off-putting to our modern taste.
After all the tension has been built up and there must be a final confrontation, we don’t get to see the final confrontation at all. Instead, we just receive a short couple-of-paragraphs summary of what has happened “off-camera”.
Fortunately, the author redeems himself a bit by closing with an excellent explanation of vampire lore that pretty much provided Bram Stoker with all he needed to create Dracula and, cherry on the cake, it closes with this beautiful final line:
… and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.
A couple of silly things
As I said most of the horror and suspense are still relevant. However, there’s a couple of plot details that for a contemporary reader can feel far too naive.
One is when in the middle of masked ball one noble woman persuades a gentleman to take her daughter with him to live in his house without even removing her mask: what!?
Another example: the vampire character, Carmilla, has been committing crimes under other identities. Without further help, the reader would have easily guessed that the three are in reality the same person, but the author childishly gives these alter-egos names that are anagrams of Carmilla: one of them Mircalla and the other Millarca. This gimmick makes you snort an out loud “Come on!” and for a moment completely erodes any suspension of disbelief.