I’m taking a break from the Lovecraft series to talk about somebody else’s weird fiction: Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
Review: Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu with introduction and notes by Jamieson Ridenhour, 2009.
Essentially, this is an annotated version of Carmilla presented in a package of supplementary criticism and other fiction that places it in the greater context of vampire fiction.
Even if you don’t pay close attention to vampire fiction, and I don’t, you’ve probably heard of Carmilla as the other great 19th century vampire novel besides Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
If you haven’t read it, spoilers are ahead. If you have read it, perhaps I’ll present new insights via Ridenhour.
And you’ve probably heard it’s a lesbian vampire story.
Is that true?
Yes and no.
There’s no sex between vampire Carmilla and narrator Laura. But there is an erotic connection. In Laura, it’s alloyed with repulsion and disquiet.
Upon first meeting her new acquaintance Carmilla describes her feelings:
Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards her’, but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed.
Of their growing intimacy and Carmilla’s touches, Laura says:
She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, ‘Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die — die, sweetly die — into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.
And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.
Her agitations and her language were unintelligible to me.
From these foolish embraces, which were not of very frequent occurrence, I must allow, I used to wish to extricate myself; but my energies seemed to fail me. Her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms.
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 ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled 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.
Laura even considers the possibility Carmilla is a boy in disguise so strong is the sexual vibe she gives off.
Laura lives in Styria with her widowed father, a retired English army officer. Carmilla’s dead mother was a native of Styria.
Carmilla shows up in Laura’s household as part of a scam. She and her mother show up on the road in front of Laura’s home after a coach accident. Laura’s mother, dressed in black and possessed of a “proud and commanding countenance”, pleads with Laura’s father to let Carmilla stay at their house since the mother has to make a hurried trip and will return in a few weeks. This is the first and last time we see this black-garbed woman.
It turns out this is standard procedure for Carmilla. She and her mother are supernatural grifters planting Carmilla into unsuspecting houses where she can feed on their residents. Which is exactly, at story’s end, what we find out Carmilla did in the house of another girl, the ward of family friend General Spielsdorf. In that case, Carmilla killed the girl.
The first meeting of Laura and Carmilla is shocking to both women (or, at least, Carmilla claims). Carmilla looks exactly like a mysterious figure Laura saw in a childhood dream. In the dream, Laura felt Carmilla’s caresses and Carmilla lay beside Laura in bed.
Or so Laura claims. There is reason to have some slight doubts about her reliability. She inconsistently gives dates.
This 1871 novella has a structure that seems odd because the plot ends very differently than Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1897.
Laura’s father meets, quite coincidentally, the General. Early in the story, we heard about the death of his ward, Mademoiselle Rheinfelt. But now he reveals the details of that woman’s growing weakness and lassitude, the same sort of lassitude Laura has been suffering from, and her death after a young woman is insinuated into his household at the suggestion of someone who purports to be a woman the General once knew. That young woman, Millarca, is, predictably, Carmilla, her identity nailed after she walks through the door of the “Ruins of Karnstein”. Karnstein, in fact, is the family the long-lived Carmilla belongs to, her backstory revealed at story’s end. Carmilla, unveiled, disappears.
At this point, I was expecting some sort of final act with the General and Laura and her father dashing back home to slay Carmilla after realizing her awful identity. Or, alternately, Carmilla being pursued after she sees the General. Instead, we get the penultimate chapter where Carmilla is found in her coffin and staked. No pursuit or final confrontation with an awake vampire. The details of Carmilla’s execution were taken from Augustin Calmet’s 1751 A Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on the Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, etc.
Ridenhour’s useful prologue, which I’d advise you to read after Le Fanu’s story, says Carmilla’s fame lies in it fusing three literary traditions for the first time.
First was the vampire of folklore — not aristocratic or glamorous.
Second was the femme fatale, a tradition going back to the Greek lamia, Eve from the Old Testament, and Lilith from Jewish tradition. Most influential on Le Fanu was probably Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem “Christabel” which, along with Carmilla, are the only two 19th century English stories featuring women preying on women. Coleridge’s poem does feature explicit lesbianism.
The third tradition was the “literary vampire”. In English literature, that goes back to John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven from his “The Vampyre” published in 1819. Ruthven is a Byronic hero (because Polidori was a hanger on in the circle of Lord Byron and, perhaps, had some homoerotic feelings towards Byron). Next up was the 109 part (published in 1845-1847) Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood, a very overwritten and melodramatic work from James Malcolm Rymer and also featuring, like Polidori’s story, an aristocratic vampire.
Carmilla is of aristocratic blood, it turns out. Le Fanu’s novel also seems to have permanently fused the connection of Eastern Europe with vampires in English literature.
One of the pleasures of this book is that, in the “Carmilla’s Vampire Ancestors” section of the book, Ridenhour gives you excerpts from all these cited works. (That’s how I know Varney the Vampire is so melodramatic.)
And Ridenhour also provides a section on “Carmilla’s Progeny” with a reprint, seemingly in full, of the excised second chapter of Dracula in which Jonathan Harker, on his way to Dracula’s castle, pays a visit, despite being warned away, to a deserted village and encounters a vampire and wolves on Walpurgisnacht. The setting is Styria, the same as Carmilla‘s, and, like Carmilla, the vampire is a Styrian countess. (The story was printed first in the collection Dracula’s Guest in 1914.) There is also an excerpt from Dracula where Harker feels the erotic ecstasy of being the prey of vampires.
Also reprinted is the competent and engaging, but not very memorable “The Tomb of Sarah” by F. G. Loring. From 1900, it owes a clear debt to Carmilla.
Most surprising is Ridenhour’s discussion of the Irish influence on Carmilla. Le Fanu incorporated elements of Irish folklore in Carmilla, particularly its tales of unearthly, beautiful, and deadly women and stories of stolen children. To make the point, there is a reprint of Le Fanu’s “The Child that Went with the Fairies” from 1870. The mysterious black-garbed woman who claims she is Carmilla’s mother is pre-figured in it.
It is interesting that both Stoker and Le Fanu were Irish, and Ridenhour argues that the ambivalence that Anglo-Protestant Le Fanu felt toward Catholic Ireland and its nationalist impulses are reflected here with figures from the story possibly symbolizing particularly Irish things. Carmilla’s mother may be Mother Ireland and Carmilla Ireland personified. And Irish nationalism, in Le Fanu’s time, was sometimes described as a metaphoric vampirism.
There is another Irish influence: the poetic tradition of the aisling, Irish verses that called for blood sacrifices and featured beautiful women. There are obvious similarities to the beautiful and predatory Carmilla. (Ridenhour also reprints examples of asilings.)
You can get Carmilla free lots of places, but, whether you want to re-read the story or experience it the first time, do yourself a favor and do what I did: buy this Valancourt Classics edition.