Girls are caterpillars when they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are grubs and larvae, don’t you see – each with their peculiar propensities, necessities and structures.
The Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was central to the development of the Gothic in Victorian literature, and the leading ghost story writer of the ninteenth-century, a fact represented by his sizable bibliography. While the Gothics are not common reading any more, and while far less well-known today, Le Fanu’s name still comes up when talking about mystery and the supernatural. His best-known stories are probably Uncle Silas, The House By The Churchyard, and the vampire novella Carmilla. Originally serialized in the magazine The Dark Blue in 1871-72, Carmilla is an early vampire tale predating Dracula by some 26 years.
Eighteen-year-old Laura lives a lonely and isolated life; her wealthy English father retired from the Austrian Service to claim a dreary castle in the midst of a Styrian forest, leaving Laura with no companions save for two governesses and a few servents. A strange carriage accident leaves behind an ideal companion for Laura: the beautiful Carmilla, a frail girl about Laura’s age. The two develop a strange and powerful attraction, a friendship that goes beyond anything Laura had with earlier visitors, though the face of Carmilla reminds Laura of the night terrors she had as a child. Laura’s nightmares return, and with it a lingering lethargy that grows as she continues to pry at the secretive Carmilla’s past. The deaths of other young women across the countryside leads to panic among the locals. But for Laura and her father, vampires are naught be superstition—even when one’s stalking their very halls…
Many people assume that Dracula started the trend of vampire novels, but—as the cover blurbs tend to point out—it was actually inspired by several earlier works, primarily Le Fanu’s Carmilla. It does set the tone for how vampires have been portrayed to this day: dark, powerful, sensual creatures of the night, on top of the Gothic standbys of moldering castles and ruined keeps off in old world Eastern Europe. There are several differences to standard vampire lore: Carmilla does often come out in daylight, though she’s most active at night; she is frail and sickly, but still has a heartbeat and is not quite the living dead; and while she’s opposed to religion, things like crosses and hymns do not drive her away.
Perhaps the most famous element of Carmilla is the sensuality between the two female protagonists, making it an early work of LGBT horror. There’s a brooding love/lust/hate relationship between Carmilla and Laura, an unnatural attraction that prevents Laura from breaking away and causes Carmilla’s heart to race, a love that goes a bit beyond that of friends. The sexual repression of the Victorian era gets flipped on its head, with Carmilla the purveyor of unholy lust in her victims, an outsider causing Laura to question the established order of things. It reflects the fearful fascination the era had with sexuality, and having a protagonist simultaneously thrilled and repulsed by these urges must have been pretty risqué at the time:
… 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.
Le Fanu’s style of horror is very subtle, more psychological and atmospheric horror than pure shock and blood; he layers the plot with a subtle dread and rich gothic atmosphere, written in luxurious imagery and heady Victorian prose that unfolds over the pages. The novella’s mysteries should come as no surprise to the reader—when the book’s blurbs reveal Carmilla is a vampire, it’s not a real secret—but the horror comes from her fatal attraction. Carmilla has been stalking Laura since childhood and is now draining her blood slowly, hiding in plain sight behind frailty and friendship. It’s the horror you know that’s killing Laura: her best friend and closest companion, a beautiful girl—that’s what’s sapping Laura’s life away, that’s the insidious threat that’s slain so many young girls over the centuries.
This vaunted subtlety is rent near the end, when the inhabitant of a nearby castle—the General—arrives, and relates the doom of his niece. The events mirror those Laura has lived, and his niece underwent the same weakened transformation that Laura has, but none of the characters seem capable of making the connection. In effect, the General telling his story reiterates the novella thus far over three chapters with only marginal changes; it’s a bit tedious that we need to go over such similar events, and it leaves the novella’s conclusion rushed and uneven compared to the rest of the story. I wonder if it’s a remnant of the story’s original serialization, or an attempt to build tension before Carmilla’s deadly secret is revealed.
Carmilla is a well-crafted novella from one of the masters of the Victorian era ghost story. It’s a very quick read that remains a powerful and influential work in the genre. The first three-quarters of the novella are excellent atmospheric horror; the last chapters are a bit redundant, but not too flawed to detract from the overall work. It may have lost its element of mystery over the years and Carmilla’s nature is no surprise, but the tale can still be suspenseful and the writing retains much of its power. I recommend it for anyone interested in a capable and atmospheric tale of gothic horror.