Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla or The Evil Guest
by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Written in the late 19th century, Carmilla inspired much later vampire fiction, including the more famous Dracula. The author was one of the great horror writers of his time, although most people haven't heard of him these days *puts on hipster glasses*.

It was originally published as part of the Gothic horror anthology In A Glass Darkly and in a magazine called The Dark Blue in 1872. Carmilla is now in the public domain, and freely available online, as well as in several published editions.

Set in Austria, in a remote schloss (castle), where a young girl named Laura (actually 18) lives with her father, a nanny, a governess and 'the servants' (who are never described, numbered, or named). Looking forward to a rare visit by a neighbouring girl, she is devastated to learn her potential friend has died of some mysterious illness. She does not have to grieve long though, as a speeding carriage dumps a fainting girl at her feet, and an imperious lady charges her father to care for her daughter until her return. The lonely and unwordly Laura is delighted to have a new friend... despite her uncanny resemblance to a visitor she had in the night as a child.
Initially a bit over-wordy, in typical old fashioned style, it is still quite readable. It is told by Laura, writing of the events afterwards, with (one feels) a shaking hand.

Quite apart from the fact it's a very well written book that is still perfectly readable today, the vampire is obsessed, infatuated, powerfully in love or lust, with the narrator. She is frequently overwhelmed by her desire and affection and strokes and pets and kisses the rather unsettled and dismayed object of her attentions - though this could, almost, be put down to a highly affectionate friendship, it inspires wild thoughts of some courtship or romance, though romantic relations between women never really enters the victim's mind. Although they certainly were in Carmilla's...

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 vou 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.
Carmilla and Laura watching the funeral
procession of one of Carmilla's victims.
Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for
Carmilla in The Dark Blue, January 1872
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, and you and I are one for ever". ("Carmilla", Chapter 4).

(Please note: most of the book is a lot easier to read than the above, it simply happens to summarise their relationship best).

Laura's mind is clouded and her suspicions dulled after Carmilla begins feeding on her - even when Carmilla's previous, nearly identical, attack and murder of another girl is described and she recognises Carmilla in it, she is unable to make the switch to perceiving Carmilla as a threat or anything but her dear friend (luckily, her father, and the General who describes the attack, recognise Carmilla easily).

Positively erotic by 19th century standards, Carmilla's attacks include gentle kisses and caresses before feeding. At other times, she appeared as a great amorphous cloud or blob of darkness, and as an enormous, monstrous catlike beast.

Her vampiric traits and the methods of her attack drew on the growing body of legends in that time period, and - while not the same as most of the vampires we are familiar with - she is clearly related. Sunlight did not appear to harm her, although it may be responsible for her general weakness and languidity. Although again, her unlife may be cause enough for that. She also found religious (Christian, in this case) music painful - although she was quite unaffected by folk charms.

Victims feel pierced (by the needle-like teeth) and a strangling sensation (possibly as the vampire held their throat, while feeding), before passing out. Most report seeing a ghostly figure, and Carmilla appears capable of gliding, dissolving, passing through solid walls, and generally becoming insubstantial at night. A number of young women in the area died while Carmilla was visiting - while her current beloved was slowly drained over weeks, ordinary girls died with in three days.

Vampires must return to their coffins to renew themselves each day (not necessarily at night as in more modern version - Carmilla disguised her visits as simply being a very late sleeper). In the coffin, they lie in several inches of blood, and have the appearance of life. They must be staked and beheaded, as she was at the end of the book. As the story is retold by Laura, after the event, and she was certainly not permitted to be present, the defeat of Carmilla is less than dramatic. Actually, her true defeat was in her discovery - once people knew what she was, she lost her advantage.

Carmilla (as Millarca)'s attack on the General's ward
Illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872
The 'mother' and attendants on Carmilla were never explained. Whether they were fellow vampires, or under her control, or simply hirelings is unknown - and the "mother's" mysterious knowledge of the General's past might hint at mind reading abilities, painstaking preparatory research or simply a clouding of true memories.

And Carmilla was not her real name - one aspect of her vampirism appeared to be that she could only use anagrams of her real name, which was Mircalla (the last Countess of Karnstein). She also went by the name of Millarca during the book. Interestingly, Carmilla is a real name (now) - supposedly a variant of Carmel, which means "God's vineyard". I think it more likely that the author was thinking of the word carmine - a blood red colour!

The setting of Styria (a province of Austria) and the characters and customs of the local nobility were based on the travelogue by Basil Hall, Skimmings; or, A winter at Schloss Hainfeld, in lower Styria (published in 1836). This is basically a long anecdote of the author's visit to a Countess in Styria and the people they met there. The scans are full of errors, but if you're interested in the culture and history of Carmilla, you may find it interesting.

The character of Carmilla was probably based on the seductive witch or demon in the (unfinished) poem Christabel by Samuel Coleridge.

Media Based on Carmilla
Carmilla has inspired several retellings in book and film (of variable quality - mostly bad!), including:

She also appears in the 1987 NES game Castlevania II: Simon's Quest and as a stock vampire character in similar games and stories, but she's not nearly as popular or well known as Dracula.

CarmillaYou can read or download Carmilla for free
Or buy it in dead tree format from Amazon. 

You may also be interested in 

No comments:

Post a Comment