Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a quarter of a century, making it responsible for all sorts of horrid literary abominations that came after it. (The book is in the public domain and there are all sorts of hideous abominations of people who have decided to sell it anyway, so I’ve chosen to not use any covers or pictures of any of them. Ask your library, or use the link to read it on Project Gutenberg)
I have to disclaim before I review this novella – I do not much really care about vampires.
Long before shiny hollow-chested lads, vampires were pale and tragic. They were undead that did not go to high schools, but haunted large Eastern European houses, and had odd habits that somehow made no one suspicious. They were accompanied by long, complex sentences that were nearly impossible to follow, but also, somehow, kind of funny.
Carmilla is this kind of vampire story. The story begins, as many Victorian stories do, with a letter found by one person retelling the correspondence of a third person to the person who wrote the letter…just in case someone might read it afterwards and wish to understand, of course. My memory is chock-full of this third-hand correspondence as a plot driver.
The correspondence is from a young woman, writing about extraordinary circumstances that occurred to her a decade earlier when she was in her mid-teens. Extraordinary circumstances that brought her into acquaintance with a pale, tragic and odd girl of (apparently) the same age called Carmilla. What happens is a very Victorian version of physical and sexual relations between the girls, accompanied by repulsion/desire that would be comfortable for many a manga/anime fan. Very Goblin Market-y.
The story works because the set up, as absurd as it is, fits the parameters needed – our unnamed protagonist lives in an alpine castle with her widower father, and has little contact with anyone in the nearest town, so she and her father are intelligent, but naive. The villagers are, as villagers must always be, utterly gormless. Warnings must be pointed, but obscure, and the end comes, as it must, in a catacomb or similar setting.
The one thing that really did not work for me was the use of the word “vampire” as a kind of climax. And, I realize that this is exactly why I don’t like vampire stories – the build up is just like pushing air into a balloon – tragic Carmilla, weird habits, nightly visits, dreamlike lassitude, kisses and embraces….each puts increasing tension into the story. But as soon as someone comes out and says, “It’s a *vampire,* it’s like someone pokes a pin into the balloon and all the tension just psssshes out. Oh well.
I’m rather more disappointed that there doesn’t really seem to be a good…anything of Carmilla. Carmilla shows up in Vampire Hunter D with bad hat syndrome, like an Amano Malificent. Looking around the web I’m seeing lots of unattractive 30 year olds with blood on their mouths, rather than pale, beautiful 16 year olds. Clearly the world needs this as a manga, not by Amano. ^_^ Maybe by Kouga Yun or, no, wait, Shimizu Reiko. Yeah, that’d work.
In conclusion, Carmilla is a GREAT idea. Now I wish someone would execute it better.