Before I talk about Carmilla, I must first introduce you to its author, J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is not a household name today. It is my personal belief that this is to the great detriment of the world of horror fiction, and to restore the field to health, we should recognize his contribution to it. Of course, I’m biased. Le Fanu wrote the first short story that truly scared me, “Green Tea.” To this day I can’t hear the words “green tea” without thinking of it.
So allow me to quote from a theoretically neutral source, Wikipedia, describing his works:
“He specialised in tone and effect rather than “shock horror” and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible.”
Ah, one of my own authorial dreams is that someday the same might be said of my works. I admire this style, and I too, in my own horror writing, tried to “leave important details unexplained and mysterious.” But of course, I was only a foolish apprentice and so the effect was to leave readers confused and disappointed. It is not a tool that just anybody can pick up and use effortlessly; but it requires the careful touch of a master. Le Fanu was such a master, and that is why his works deserve to be read.
Now, then… Carmilla.
Carmilla purports to be from the casebook of Dr. Hesselius, Le Fanu’s “occult detective.” It is told from the perspective of a teenaged girl named Laura, who lives in a castle in Styria. She’s been eagerly looking forward to a visit from a friend of her father’s, General Spielsdorf, because he has a niece her own age. But, the general’s niece falls ill and dies. In his grief, he sends Laura’s father a strange letter, cursing some nameless evil which he blames for his niece’s death.
One night, while out for a walk with her father, a carriage crashes in a river on their property. Inside is a young woman about Laura’s age. Her mother hastily explains she is on a journey of great importance, and can’t wait for her daughter, Carmilla, to recover. Laura’s father offers to let the the young woman stay at his home to recuperate.
Laura and Carmilla quickly become friends. After being cooped up alone so long, Laura is delighted to have someone to spend time with, though Carmilla is not without her eccentricities. She rises very late in the day, and is frequently referred to as “languid.”
Meanwhile, a mysterious disease ravages the nearby village, with many townspeople dying with symptoms which include visions of evil visitors in the night. Eventually, Laura herself begins to show signs of the illness.
General Spielsdorf finally arrives for his long-delayed visit, and describes the circumstances of his beloved niece’s death. It seems a beautiful visitor, named Millarca, had come to stay in his home after he met with her mother at a social function. Soon after, strange things began to happen…
I think you can see where this is going. The general sees Carmilla, and instantly recognizes her as the monster who killed his niece. In his research, he has discovered she is the long-dead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. With the help of a local vampire hunter, the general and Laura’s father, find the vampires grave and destroy the creature in the manner prescribed by tradition. But as the final line of the story suggests, Laura remains haunted by the memory of Carmilla for the rest of her life.
It’s a suspenseful, atmospheric and haunting story. All the tropes are there that we recognize from Dracula, but in a much more concentrated and, in my opinion, more powerful form.
You might be thinking, “Well, did Le Fanu just do a gender swap of Dracula and call it a story? Not impressed.” Yeah, see… Carmilla was written 25 years before Dracula, and it’s well-known to have influenced Stoker while he was writing the novel. I would not accuse Stoker of ‘copying’ as such, as much of the commonalities between the books are just tropes of Gothic fiction. But if anyone were to be accused of copying, it’s Bram, not Sheridan, who gets called to the principal’s office. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though, and if Stoker wanted to write a book like Carmilla, all I can say is he had good taste.
So, then, is there any subtext to Carmilla? Any at all?
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.
This is the thing about vampire fiction. You can pretty much take anything from any aspect of vampire mythology, and append “… of course, really it’s all about sex.” and you’re well on your way to having a publishable academic treatise. My contention is that not every single thing in every vampire story needs to be about sex. Sometimes, a vampire is just a vampire. However, in Carmilla it’s significant enough that I suppose a few words are neccesary.
It’s clear that Laura and Carmilla have a certain relationship, and it’s a relationship that prudish Victorian authorities would not approve of. And, in fact, don’t approve of.
However, unlike with Dracula, I don’t think you can say that Carmilla’s vampirism is supposed to be a metaphor for some other urge. I say that because it’s, like, very obvious what these urges are. If Le Fanu felt the need to mask it with a metaphor, he wouldn’t have also made it so apparent.
My own interpretation may strike you as laughably simplistic, but I just don’t see the lesbianism as related to the vampirism. Carmilla is a lesbian who happens to be a vampire. Or maybe more accurately, a vampire who happens to be a lesbian? I dunno. Anyway, the point is, the two traits aren’t really related. At least, I don’t think Le Fanu is saying they are. If anything, it’s just a handy plot device to have them both be female, since to the Victorian mindset, having two women hanging around together would attract less suspicion.
And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. Judging by the lists on Wikipedia, any work of fiction involving a female vampire seems to claim inheritance from Carmilla, even if it’s only of the “Vampire Sorority Babes” variety.
But there’s so much more to Carmilla than that! It’s just a good story, Freudian analysis aside. Moreover, as an antecedent to Dracula, it has put us one step closer to answering the questions raised in earlier posts: what was the first vampire story? And what was the original impetus for the vampire myth?
As far as finding the first vampire story, the trail starts to run colder before Carmilla. There’s The Vampyre, by John William Polidori, and the interminable 1840s penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, but Le Fanu’s main source seems to have been the works of an 18th century Benedictine monk named Augustin Calmet, specifically his Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al.
Forgive me for dwelling a little on this book when I’m supposed to be reviewing Carmilla, but it’s a fascinating work in its own right. It may sound bizarre to modern readers, but put yourself in Calmet’s shoes. Imagine you wanted to invent Snopes, except it’s the 18th century and your only authoritative reference source is the Bible. It would be tough.
Calmet reports that these “revenans are called by the name of oupires or vampires,” and that:
“Antiquity certainly neither saw nor knew anything like it. Let us read through the histories of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Latins; nothing approaching to it will be met with.”
Calmet has a very confident, “just the facts” manner to him. Lest you think he’s just credulous simpleton, let this passage demonstrate that he is trying to write a serious work separating fact from fiction here, and has no time for nonsense:
“The imagination of those who believe that the dead chew in their graves, with a noise similar to that made by hogs when they eat, is so ridiculous that it does not deserve to be seriously refuted.”
His chapter titles are also very to-the-point, as he deals with each type of case in turn, e.g. Chapter II: “On the Revival of Persons Who Were Not Really Dead.”
Le Fanu seems to have drawn much of the inspiration for his story from this book. In particular, the method of destroying the vampire seems taken almost verbatim from Calmet’s reports.
But given that vampires don’t, you know, exist, what is the meaning of the vampire myth? Why is it so popular? There must be a reason, right?
Prepare yourselves, we are about to go deeper into philosophy than ever before on a Ruined Chapel by Moonlight. I did not know where this series would go when I first began, but I hate to disappoint my readers, and if providing a satisfactory answer to the vampire question means things have to get weird, so be it.
All human existence may be viewed as a constant struggle against death. This is less obvious to us, in our modern, comfortable lives than it would have been in say, the Victorian era or before, but death is always there. The further back you go, the more formidably its presence looms.
In some sense, therefore, every human activity is a way of coping with the inevitability of death. We do not see it as such, and in many cases, the link is not a direct one. But religion, fiction, philosophy and so on are all essentially meditations on what to do about death.
This is probably one reason that the constant emphasis on sex in vampire fiction annoys me. Yeah, there’s a sexual element; sure. But there is a way more significant element that deals with death. Modern Western attitudes about sex are very different than Victorian ones. A modern and a Victorian talking about sexual mores would scarcely even understand one another.
But death? Everyone, from Bram Stoker to me, we all have (or had, in Bram’s case) that hanging over us. Like Warren Zevon sang, “The doctor is in, and he’ll see you now / He don’t care who you are.”
Vampire stories are about death. However, vampires do not represent death. Vampires are rather those who have attempted to cheat death. In a sense, they too are victims. For example, this passage from early in Carmilla:
As we sat thus one afternoon under the trees a funeral passed us by. It was that of a pretty young girl, whom I had often seen, the daughter of one of the rangers of the forest. The poor man was walking behind the coffin of his darling; she was his only child, and he looked quite heartbroken. Peasants walking two-and-two came behind, they were singing a funeral hymn.
I rose to mark my respect as they passed, and joined in the hymn they were very sweetly singing.
My companion shook me a little roughly, and I turned surprised.
She said brusquely, “Don’t you perceive how discordant that is?”
“I think it very sweet, on the contrary,” I answered, vexed at the interruption, and very uncomfortable, lest the people who composed the little procession should observe and resent what was passing.
I resumed, therefore, instantly, and was again interrupted. “You pierce my ears,” said Carmilla, almost angrily, and stopping her ears with her tiny fingers. “Besides, how can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me, and I hate funerals. What a fuss! Why you must die —everyone must die; and all are happier when they do. Come home.”
“My father has gone on with the clergyman to the churchyard. I thought you knew she was to be buried to-day.”
“She? I don’t trouble my head about peasants. I don’t know who she is,” answered Carmilla, with a flash from her fine eyes.
“She is the poor girl who fancied she saw a ghost a fortnight ago, and has been dying ever since, till yesterday, when she expired.”
“Tell me nothing about ghosts. I shan’t sleep to-night, if you do.”
“I hope there is no plague or fever coming; all this looks very like it,” I continued. “The swineherd’s young wife died only a week ago, and she thought something seized her by the throat as she lay in her bed, and nearly strangled her. Papa says such horrible fancies do accompany some forms of fever. She was quite well the day before. She sank afterwards, and died before a week.”
“Well, her funeral is over, I hope, and her hymn sung; and our ears shan’t be tortured with that discord and jargon. It has made me nervous. Sit down here, beside me; sit close; hold my hand; press it hard—hard—harder.”
Of course, the main reason Carmilla is so nervous about this funeral is presumably because she knows all about the “ghost” the poor girl saw. But I think her obvious discomfort at funeral rites is more than just that. It’s also that Carmilla genuinely fears death, which is why she continues to exist as the abomination she is rather than face it.
I put it to you, then, that the real motif of these stories is the attempt to reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of death. And that’s why they resonate with us. The constant struggle against the universal law of entropy is the ultimate uniting force in storytelling. We all relate to it; we all understand it. Even the vampires understand it, for have they not sought to prolong their lives by unnatural means for fear of it?
Vampires do not represent death. They represent our fear of death. They are the seductive desire to give into our fear. To lie to ourselves, to pretend to something we are not. That’s why we all recognize the temptation. Vampire stories are ultimately about coming to terms with our own mortality.
But that, of course, is just my take. You may well see it differently. And of course, not all vampire stories are created equal. By this metric, Twilight isn’t even a vampire story at all, and not just because the blighters sparkle.
I struggle, though, to come up with a more plausible reason for why these same concepts resonate across different times and settings. The art of storytelling is in spinning a tale that speaks to people, and there’s nothing like fear of death to do that.
Of course, to bring all this back around to the very beginning, did Bram Stoker, or Sheridan Le Fanu, or anyone else for that matter, think about any of this stuff when they sat down to write? I’ll bet you they didn’t. Nobody would ever consciously set out to write a complex allegory about death. Rather, they wanted to tell a good story, and in doing so, tapped into ideas that are universal in the human experience.
[Audio version of this post available below.]