Summer Reading: Carmilla

July 1st, 2012

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.

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10 Responses

  1. DezoPenguin says:

    Vampires…are just one of those things where media saturation has required them to change continuously over time to the point where vampires being simply monstrous and evil (30 Days of Night-ish) is virtually a subversion of the concept. From the time a kid is a preschooler in modern society, he or she is saturated with vampire imagery, from The Count on Sesame Street to Count Chocula cereal. As much as a fictional creature can be, a vampire is just…ordinary. Understandable. “Normal,” even. And the symbolic horrors they represent have little play in modern life. Drinking blood? Big deal; sounds more like a job for the Red Cross than a guy with a stake. Spawn of the Devil? Half the readers won’t even believe in the Devil. Imagery related to sexuality? Not even necessarily seen as a bad thing (particularly in the context of Victorian literature, where the “normal” state of the time is generally viewed as hypocrisy and repression today). It’s no surprise that vampires started becoming heroes and protagonists somewhere in the 70s (I think Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania was the first to feature a vampire as a genuine good-guy male romantic lead.), because they’d lost their cachet as Unknowable Horror.

    I count myself lucky that I first encountered “Carmilla” in junior high, when it was only the second vampire story I’d ever read (following a Scholastic abridged edition of Dracula I’d read when I was 9) and thus the concept was still new, fresh, and creepy to me, and thus nostalgia and memory help allow me to still view it as one of my favorite pieces of vampire fiction.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just for the record, Carmilla is free as ebook at the kindle store :D

  3. @Anonymous – Thank you. It’s also free in several forms from the Gutenberg Project: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10007 ^_^

    And, like I said, you can probably find it at your local library. ^_^

  4. La MaMa did a musical version in 1970, which I think is rather good – over the top rather than pale and loitering. I’ve got the recording – seems they revived it in 2003 http://www.lamama.org/archives/2003/Carmilla.htm At the end Carmilla is still alive and has taken over care of the enfeebled Laura ….
    I think LeFanu is an underrated author, e.g. I enjoyed Wylder’s Hand

  5. I love Carmilla. I’ve always liked those creepy old Gothic lit horror novels, so finding one that was lesbian to boot (back in high school) made me feel like I’d hit the jackpot. Glad to see it covered in your Summer Reading posts! I haven’t seen any of the film adaptations of Carmilla (not counting Vampire Hunter D), and never plan to. ^_^;

  6. @Sheila – Yeah, it looks like every version is over the top. I’d really like to see one that tried to get it true to the story.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “to the point where vampires being simply monstrous and evil (30 Days of Night-ish) is virtually a subversion of the concept.”

    D00d have you seen or read Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? It’s got both the horrors of vampirism and the horrors of slavery.

    “And the symbolic horrors they represent have little play in modern life. Drinking blood? Big deal; sounds more like a job for the Red Cross than a guy with a stake.”

    Drinking blood against someone’s will? Sounds more like kidnapping people to sell their blood to sketchy hospitals a la http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/06/red-market-excerpt/ I voluntarily give blood and the brutality in that article enraged me >:(

  8. Cara M. says:

    i loved Carmilla! Somehow the late night molestation by a sexy cat segment was particularly memorable. Actually, I read it after I read Christabel (by S.T. Coleridge), which is what it was based on, and though Carmilla was good, Christabel had the terrifying sexual and religious overtones that made the early stuff exciting. Carmilla felt a little more like Le Fanu wasn’t totally sure whether the blood drinking stuff was all that bad, but knew he had to end it with vampire death or he wouldn’t get to use his cool anagrams.

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