I learned about Carmilla from Ron Lit, an awesome booktube channel that I recently discovered and am in love with. I went on a video watching binge and watched her review about this novella and decided to read it as soon as possible. I downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg and emailed it directly to my Kindle. (By the way, I love Project Gutenberg but that’s another story.) I read this novella in a couple of hours (between loads of laundry and other chores) At around 100 pages, it’s a very short read.
Carmilla is classified as a gothic novella, written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and first published in the magazine The Dark Blue in 1871. The story is narrated in the first person by Laura who is one of the two main protagonists. The story itself is presented as part of a casebook of Dr. Hesselius. Laura recounts an experience she had at just six years of age where she experienced a strange dream wherein a beautiful woman gets in her bed and bites her on her chest. She did not have any marks to indicate that it actually happened.
Twelve years later while on a stroll with her father they encounter a carriage which delivers them Carmilla. A young girl of Laura’s age who is frail with a mysterious ailment. When the two women look upon each other for the first time they recognize each other from the supposed dream Laura had when she was six years old. The two of them become fast friends and perhaps even more than that as Carmilla makes pretty overt romantic advances towards Laura. I’m always surprised by how Victorian era literature can be so openly sensual especially here where the two parties are female. For example:
“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).
Carmilla is described as beautiful and languid. She is a lovely young woman albeit a bit strange. For example, she abruptly snaps at Laura for singing a Christian hymn, she sleeps with her door locked and does not emerge until past noon. She’s clearly different and yet she’s not really presented as a villain.
Laura begins to experience nightmares and her health also begins to decline. Her nightmares consist of a cat-like beast that sneaks into her room and bites her on the chest. The cat then takes the form of a woman before walking out through the closed door. Laura’s father sends for a doctor who recommends that Laura should not be left alone.
I won’t go into how the story ends but I really recommend that you read Carmilla and find out for yourself.
One of the first criticisms that came to mind while reading is the fact that Carmilla’s sexuality is tied into negative connotations of vampirism. Vampires are others, they exist outside of what is considered good and holy. They’re evil. So to equate same sex love with that is problematic. Except I don’t see Carmilla as being made a villain here. Laura does not speak of her friend with disdain or disgust. Also, Carmilla’s sexuality is not stated as much as it is implied. There was a definite sensuality between Laura and Carmilla.
Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by about twenty-five years. It is difficult to believe that Dracula was not influenced by Carmilla. I have to believe that it was. According to Wikipedia, an early manuscript of Dracula had the castle set in Styria which is the same place where Carmilla was set. It was later changed to Transylvania. I am not a vampire lore expert, aside from Dracula and the Twilight series I have not read any other vampire books. Based on my limited knowledge I am of the opinion Carmilla did it better.