Thursday, 5 December 2013

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu Review

Set in 19th century Austria, Laura is a lonely young woman living with her father and their two servants in the Styrian countryside until one fateful night when she and her father encounter a mysterious stagecoach barrelling through the forest near their house. Rather rashly, her father agrees to let the sickly young woman inside stay in their house while her strange mother continue on her journey. And then people in the surrounding area start dying of an unknown disease and the peasants start muttering about an “oupire”. Who, or what, is Laura’s new friend, Carmilla, really – and will she survive the encounter long enough to find out?

Nowadays vampires are so prevalent in popular culture, nearly everyone knows about them. Their traits, their behaviours, every aspect of the vampire is so well defined that this Victorian story can seem quaint in the way it plays up the mystery of Carmilla. But when J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla was published in 1872 (the year before the author’s death), the vampire was a relatively unknown creature in popular culture. John Polidori’s short story The Vampyre had been published to some success a few decades earlier and the pulpy Varney the Vampire had been a popular series, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most famous vampire novel ever written and the book that would launch vampires permanently into the mainstream, wouldn’t appear for another 25 years.

In fact, Carmilla is credited by Stoker as an influence in the creation of his novel, and it’s easy to see why. The fangs and nightly blood-sucking, sleeping in a coffin in a ruined chapel, the associations of vampires with nobility, the ability for vampires to transform into animals, the aversion to Christianity, eternal life and youth, and the strong ties between vampires and sexuality all appear in Carmilla. Perhaps the reason why Carmilla wasn’t the success that Dracula was lies in its female protagonist and her relationship with the female vampire that Le Fanu implies went beyond mere friendship. 

The story opens when 6 year old Laura meets the beautiful young woman Carmilla, whom she doesn’t know by name yet, but who appears in her room nightly to drink her blood. When her nursemaid acts on her suspicions, a ritual from a priest is performed and Laura is no longer visited by the vampire. But years later, when our story takes place and Laura is 19, Carmilla re-enters her life, and Laura recognises her as the youthful visitor who used to bite her breast as a child – though she seems to have no trouble accepting that Carmilla hasn’t aged in 13 years! Instead, Laura’s feelings confuse her as she is both drawn to and repulsed by her though describes Carmilla as beautiful. Later, when the two are alone in Carmilla’s bedroom, she makes a move on Laura, kissing her and drawing close to her, talking intensely and unequivocally about how Laura belongs to her.

In this sense, Carmilla is a surprisingly un-Victorian story as it’s basically a lesbian vampire story! You could take this idea further still - if you interpret vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality, you might even read the subtext of Carmilla’s speech to Laura’s father, explaining this “disease”, meaning vampires, as a sexually progressive argument:

“‘Creator! Nature!’ said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. ‘And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature - don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so,’” (p.39)

Besides the sexual undertones of the story, there are a number of memorable scenes that stand out for their rich, gothic imagery. Ruined chapels, castles with drawbridges, haunting forests with crumbling Christian totems, all bathed in a twilit glow and set against the schloss and background of the 19th century Austrian countryside. Le Fanu continues to hint at Carmilla’s true identity, though to modern audiences, it’s either known before you pick up the book what’s what, or you’ve guessed it within Carmilla’s first appearance. Nonetheless, there are a number of interesting scenes that will become classic staples of vampire fiction such as Laura looking at a painting from 1698 (150 years before this story is set) of a noblewoman called Mircalla who looks identical to Carmilla (and whose name nobody seems to notice is an anagram of Carmilla) strongly implying Carmilla’s immortality, or the image of Carmilla drenched in blood and standing at the foot of Laura’s bed when she awakens in the middle of the night! 

By far my favourite scene was Carmilla’s entrance where a blighted carriage rumbles precariously through the moonlit forest path, nearly toppling at the sight of an ancient Christian cross as its horses react violently to the religious symbol. Laura watches as her father approaches and before long Carmilla emerges to go back with them. Meanwhile, Laura observes inside the carriage the “hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head” who is presumably Carmilla’s mother, if not guardian, who nods and grins derisively at her with “gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury”. And the carriagemen, described as “ugly hang-dog-looking fellows” - couple this ghoulish group with Carmilla and it’s like the carriage was regurgitated from Hell itself! 

Not every aspect of the modern vampire mythos is laid out here - Carmilla walks about in daylight and can see her reflection in the mirror, while the creation of a vampire is rather glibly described by Le Fanu as someone evil who kills themselves, and somehow becomes a vampire. They then feed on others, draining the blood of their victims until they die and then rise from the grave, vampires themselves. The second part was used in Dracula and kind of makes sense in a parasitic way but the original vampire creation is very weak. 

If Le Fanu’s story is unconventional for its time, his writing is unfortunately all too similar to his Victorian contemporaries. Overwritten scenes, overwrought dialogue, overly proper behaviour all make this book a rather slow read even though it’s barely 100 pages long and its predictability too doesn’t help. However, Carmilla has remained in print at least in part because it’s an original and striking story whose titular character would go on to influence numerous horror writers to create their own female vampires in her mould. The imagery and the vampiric scenes do still retain their ability to mesmerise modern audiences, and for fans of the literary sub-genre of vampire fiction, it’s worth reading Carmilla to see where a number of tropes and stock characters originated, in particular the Van Helsing figure in this book, General Spielsdorf.

There’s certainly more than enough here to warrant the classic label it’s earned since it was first published, and it’s story is a lot more interesting than many other classics too! So, if you’re feeling sinister, take a trip to Styria and meet the eternally youthful Carmilla - she’ll never let you leave!


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