I love vampires. The classic, predatory type in combination with a historical setting and a nuanced undertone of rampant sexuality.
The genre has changed beyond all recognition over recent decades, and I seldom find gems among the hordes of new bloodsuckers. Sometimes there is nowhere to go but back to the classics, and it doesn’t come more classic than Carmilla. This novella predates Dracula by more than twenty-five years, but its age is actually quite hard to believe. For one thing, the language, as compared with other classic texts (I’m looking at you, Ivanhoe) is not challenging.
Also, this is undeniably a lesbian vampire story.
‘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.”
A quick summary: Laura and her father live with their servants in a backwater castle. Following an accident, a passing carriage leaves a mysterious young woman in their care – the ravishing Carmilla.
Young, friendless and naïve, Laura is quickly drawn under the spell of this secretive stranger, who is quite different from the sweet invalid she appears to be. As Laura begins to sicken, questions are raised about the kindly attentions of her new companion.
Really, if you’ve read any book about vampires, you’ll go into this one knowing what to expect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good read. In fact, compared with many a vampire novel, this short text is refreshing, and deserving of its legacy. I think when it comes to the crunch I still prefer Dracula, but it’s not difficult to see what a debt Stoker’s masterpiece owes to Carmilla.
‘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. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.’
The vampire of this novella is the original incarnation of Lucy, and I think without her the legions of seductive vampiric noblewoman in Gothic fiction would never have been.
Stoker certainly took what Le Fanu had written and bettered it, but in some ways Carmilla is the more groundbreaking text. Unlike many of his Victorian contemporaries, Le Fanu does not shy away from the sexual undertones. They are so heavily present that it’s difficult to honestly label them as something entirely below the surface.
The interactions between Laura and Carmilla are charged with sexual energy, and there is a lascivious, visceral quality to Carmilla’s behaviour that contrasts with Laura’s waxen, slightly limp temperament. As ever in the Gothic, the two women represent the extremes of femme fatale and innocent virgin, but this is one of few Gothic texts which I have read in which the two types of women interact on a basis so fundamental to the plot.
“But to die as lovers may–to die together, so that they may live together.”
Overall, Carmilla is something of an enigma, since despite a little research I can find no satisfying answer as to what inspired it, but it is a good read. (Also, at just over 100 pages, it’s nothing resembling a commitment!)
It’s undoubtedly one of the founding texts of the Gothic genre, and deserves more credit than it has received in the mainstream for being a precursor to Dracula. So go on. It won’t bite.