Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu was first published in 1872. Carmilla is a vampire story and predates Stoker’s Dracula by 25 years. I expected a story that would be outrageous and colored with the supernatural, melodramatic and worthy of an eye roll or two. What I got was something else entirely.
In case you don’t know it, the plot centers around Laura, a girl of 18. She lives with her widowed father in a remote castle in Styria in the middle of a forest. The closest neighbors are a few miles away. Laura’s only real company are her two governesses. One evening while the three of them and Laura’s father were out looking at a particularly bright moon, a carriage comes careening around the bend and flips over. Everyone inside is more or less fine, except Carmilla, a girl of Laura’s age, who is shaken and a bit in shock. The girl’s mother is in a panic as she is in a hurry to get somewhere and can’t waste time waiting for her daughter to recover. Laura’s father insists that they leave the girl with them even though the mother says she will not be able to return for her for three months. But after more insisting, Carmilla is left in the care of complete strangers. The mother mentions that the girl has a delicate constitution and has just recovered from a long illness and is forbidden to talk about who she is and where her family is from.
Carmilla recovers soon enough and she and Laura become close friends. It also turns out that when they were each six, they had had a dream in which the other one had appeared as her older self. When Laura had her dream as a child she awoke screaming because she had been bitten on the chest but no marks were found and no one thought anything of it.
Carmilla is pale and tends to sleep late. She doesn’t leave her room until after 1 in the afternoon. Soon reports of girls mysteriously dying in the area filter in to the castle. And when paintings that had been sent out for restoration are delivered, one of them painted in 1698 of Mircalla, Countess of Karnstein looks exactly like Carmilla. Carmilla manages to pass off the resemblance by admitting that she is a descendent of the Countess. Right.
The book is really well written and compelling even though there were a few moments I wondered how Laura and her father could be so blind to what was going on. What surprised me most though was the sex. Where Dracula is a somewhat sexy novel, it doesn’t hold a candle to Carmilla:
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.”
Steamy! And there are plenty of other passages like that one.
Carmilla’s victims are always girls while Stoker makes Dracula clearly heterosexual and sets him up as a danger to the proper containment of female sexuality. Le Fanu does not condemn either Carmilla or Laura’s sexuality. Instead, sex is a way to lull Laura’s anxiety and lure her to accepting death. I must say though that as often as Laura finds herself attracted to Carmilla, she feels as though she is in a trance and is sometimes disgusted with herself and hates Carmilla. I’m sure there is lots of psycho-sexual analysis that can be done with this story, but I’ll leave it there. A tease.
If you have read Dracula but not Carmilla you really need to read it. And if you haven’t read either, do read Carmilla, it’s better than Dracula, at least I think so.
My first RIP IV book! Next RIP post will be about Castle Otranto by Horace Walpole.