Carmilla (1872)

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla concerns the vampiress we know and love, because she loves us more than we love her. That is, if you’re the object of her desire. If not, then there’s no hope. Carmilla will drain you of life and you will die. Of course, as the novella would have us know, she seems partial to women, so the guys don’t have much to worry about. Unless they’re Victorian men and they feel threatened by feminine power. In this case the subtextual message runs its course as the men gather and plot to destroy this out of control woman and her wily ways.

Without delving into the problem of the patriarchy, Carmilla is known for the road it paves for lesbianism. Carmilla is insinuated as being responsible for the epidemic death that flourishes in the countryside, but she is seen pouring out her affections for the lovely Laura. Curious is Laura’s reaction for the way it mirrors the true-to-life phenomenon when a person confronts the possibility they may be homosexual. Laura is alarmed by Carmilla’s raptures but is not entirely put off by them. They stir her thoughts in ways that come off as though she has to consider how she really feels, where “the sense of attraction immensely prevailed.” The notion that Laura and Carmilla had the same dream-visions as children, and that they were destined to meet later in life, speaks to the modern scientific hypothesis that some people are predestined to be homosexual, determined by genetics even. What is certain concerns how modern media storytelling outlets (e.g. Hollywood television and movies) capitalize on the Carmilla story to usher in, as they do with any hot social topic, modes of social acceptance regarding the LGBTQ community. Bram Stoker may have penned an ultimate vampire legacy which addresses repressed sexuality but in truth, Le Fanu one-ups him by introducing the progressive angle — and the rest is history.

Julia Pietrucha as Carmilla and Eleanor Tomlinson as Lara in Styria (2014).

Carmilla as a story certainly has some oddities. Perplexing is Carmilla’s so-called mother who in doubling instances, sets about the task of unloading the vampiress upon unsuspecting older men with daughters and nieces. We never know who this woman is nor how this activity she engages in serves any specific purpose. Does she know that Carmilla is a vampire? What is her purpose if she doesn’t? What does she stand to gain if she does? The information is never conveyed. And then there’s the added mystery woman who was spotted the night of the accident…

“…with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.”

The answers never come as we are presented only with the mother vanishing off to towns that are leagues away, and the woman with the turban is only mentioned once. There is one scene in which the mother declares she knows General Spielsdorf, but since they meet at a masquerade, she wears a mask, refuses to disclose who she is, leaves Millarca (Carmilla) with him, and is never seen again. So I’m throwing my hands up in the air on these.

Elise Bauman as Laura and Natasha Negovanlis as Carmilla in the television show Carmilla (2014-16).

Carmilla herself is a wondrous marvel. Her manner is positively childlike and yet her personality bears the markers of possession. She dazzles with the magnetism of her charm yet she coerces with the spirit of her bloodlust. Plainly speaking, it’s manipulation, which makes her dangerous. Whatever the cloaked message is concerning the freedom for women to love other women, Carmilla is not herself; she is a murderess. She is a cold-blooded killer, though I dare say, her aspect as a vampire is gluttonously impressive when her coffin is discovered, revealing how she reposes in a pool of blood seven inches deep.

Her vampire consciousness controls how she behaves, the classic trope of sexuality leading from death and murder to eternal life, but it’s couched in this odd human/inhuman element in which philosophy is applied to justify Carmilla’s actions. When Laura’s father considers the epidemic that is killing the local young girls, he comforts the group by proclaiming how they are in God the Creator’s hands. Carmilla responds:

“Creator! Nature!…And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature — don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.”

Lily Cole plays the mysterious Carmilla figure in the movie rendition of Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel, The Moth Diaries (2011).

Carmilla callously simplifies the vampire’s need to prey on humans by implying that it’s merely in their nature to do so. Notions of good vs. evil are lost in a Darwinian maelstrom of psycho-sexual gold where the evolutionary traits of mating by laws of attraction underscores the behavior. For a vampire to survive, in spite of it’s gender, they must entice, befriend, and feed on young and pretty girls. Charm, beauty, poetic passion, youth, intelligence, all comprise the tactical method of operation, and it’s for Carmilla to analogize that it’s nothing more than a viral outbreak’s instinct to spread.

Apart from the delicious intrigue of Carmilla as vampire, it might be worth noting on the side how Laura and her father claim not to be “magnificent people,” that they are supplied by only a “small income,” yet they happen to live in what was known a “schloss,” a great castle-home with no less than “five and twenty” rooms. Excuse me? One theory of reading takes into account how the passing of time will affect reader point-of-view; this is where the constructs of that theory come into play. Nowadays only the notorious one-percent live in such extravagance and so for a book that was written in 1872, it’s fair to say that times have certainly changed. I want my schloss and I want it now.

Carmilla is wonderful reading and stands as the precursor to Bram Stoker’s masterpiece (though it’s odd how Dan Jones didn’t mention that). For the connoisseur of Victorian Horror, it is a must read; for the literary social historian, it is a valuable artifact. It takes models of family structure and social norms and turns them on their head for public display during an age when it was risky to do so. People have been having ideas about how society can change for eons, and we can thank the masters of literary art and art in general for the way we can see how this change can come around to be more than perfectly acceptable.

Transformation (1831)

Mary Shelley’s Transformation is a work of short fiction that bears some interesting similarities to the masterwork that is her magnum opus, Frankenstein (1818/31). It speaks to the psychological undercurrent that writers experience, even as H. M. Jones has suggested, that “our novelists search the subconscious mind…in order to achieve reality, the mode of achieving verisimilitude” (xx). This “search” is the meditative process that extraordinary art requires, which for Shelley is the opportunity to do what she does best, pairing bold, exquisite language with the recurrent themes that linger in her imagination.

Some comparisons go as follows:

1A) Victor Frankenstein is a self-assured student of medicine who through his ambitions, believes he can control the forces of nature, which underscores his character with a sense of arrogance.

1B) Guido of Genoa has an “imperious, haughty, tameless spirit.” He realizes the “wild impetuosity” of his character and states that he was “insolent and domineering,” and possessed of a “rebel heart.”


2A) After experiencing a drastic chain of events, Victor finds himself scaling the Alps, alone seeking solace from the world and its woes.

2B) Having lost everything as a result of his behavior, Guido finds himself wandering alone the shores of the sea.


3A) Surrounded by the vast mountainside isolation, Victor encounters the monstrous “fiend” bounding towards him, a sight that is highly unusual. The two end up conversing about the great dilemma Victor has caused for them both.

3B) Along the isolated sea shore, Guido observes a shipwreck from which the sight of a surviving dwarf “bestrding a sea-chest” is astonishing and very strange to see. They come to discuss Guido’s unfortunate predicament.


4A) A voyeuristic theme emerges in connection with the loss of love, when Victor’s creation is seen peering through the window, where a mate is about to be created for him. Here the loss of love actually comes to take place.

4B) Voyeurism makes an appearance when Guido “hid himself” to watch the window of his love, who is set to marry the dwarf who is inhabiting his body. Here the loss of love is threatened.

Victor Frankenstein’s abhorred creation attempts love in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Both narratives establish characters who experience the “great-is-thy-pride” theme, which translates into the inevitable and subsequent theme, “the greater thy pride, the harder thy fall.” Victor and Guido are dumbfounded by the consequences of their actions, and turn to the sublimity of nature as a means to remedy their inner turmoil. Nature is viewed here as the go-to source for healing and wisdom in the presence of emotional discomfort and confusion. As well, the natural space becomes the metaphorical space of the mind, a natural-world battlefield where the ugliness of the alter-ego is forced to make an appearance for the purposes of confrontation.

Both confrontations are pivotal story points designed to bring forth a resolution, speaking to the human condition which all humans must face, the path of coming to terms with the debacle of self. For Victor, his alter-ego is personified as an unspeakably strong monster, representing the fostered arrogance which has grown to overpower him. For Guido, his cocksure, near-criminally-minded ways are represented and personified as the dwarf-human whose voice was “screeching and horrid, and his contortions as he spoke were frightful to behold.”

The dwarf is a fascinating aspect of Transformation for the way it ushers in the Victorian view of dwarfism, as seen in the writings of other authors. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla describes a hunchback with “sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity,” who has a “pointed black beard…white fangs…and a grotesque hat.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde echoes a more startling picture, and the shame it incurs, when he describes what happens at The Birthday of the Infanta — when a dwarf who has never seen himself looks in a mirror, he realizes: “It was a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld.” Such views have a history, as we see in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) — when a visitor spots what he believes to be a small zoo, a proprietor answers that the enclosure is an “asylum for those poor creatures who are rendered miserable from some natural deficiency or redundancy,” little people “whose deformity would lead them to wish to be secluded from human view.” Here they are kept from the “monster-mongers” who would display them, where the cost of the “maintenance of the monsters [is] a hundred and twenty.” The notion of displaying little people for money, along with the world of others who look different, reaches into the 20th Century, where criticism has been heaped upon Todd Browning’s notoriously ill-conceived movie, Freaks (1932).

G.R.R. Martin capitalizes on the olden view of dwarfs as undesirable in his book and television series A Game of Thrones (1996-2019). His view is vindicated as he seizes the opportunity to thoroughly celebrate the character and the actor who portrays him, Peter Dinklage.

Shelley’s depiction of a dwarf as “misshapen” is not so much a politically incorrect standpoint as it is, what I would term, a Barthesian Slip. Roland Barthes posited that writing does not need an authorial tag because an author is merely the transfer point between society and the written page (Source). The Great British perception of dwarfism emerges through Shelley’s writing; her mind is but an extension of a larger state of consciousness. Shelley’s authorship, as any author’s might, functions as the interpretation of the social mores of her day, even when judgments as to the exact nature of insensitivity are difficult to define and comprehend.

The form of Transformation is certainly worthy of note. To read it in a day or two sitting as a compact version of the Frankenstein story is to experience in real time the vivid power of language. Written in the first-person, the first few acts consist of Guido “telling” us about the horror he has caused, a combination of conveyed events with heartfelt confessionals that read like intense poetry.

“I arrived in Genoa. I trod the pavement of my ancestral palace. My proud step was no interpreter of my heart, for I deeply felt that, though surrounded by every luxury, I was a beggar. The first step I took in claiming Juliet must widely declare me such. I read contempt or pity in the looks of all. I fancied that rich and poor, young and old, all regarded me with derision. Torella came not near me. No wonder that my second father should expect a son’s deference from me in waiting first on him. But, galled and stung by a sense of my follies and demerit, I strove to throw the blame on others.”

The language is dense and requires careful reading, yet when the moment arrives when he agonizes at sea, the sudden “showing” of the scene becomes impacting on the mind. We are treated to lustrous visuals along with a sense of alarm, thus drawing in the readership into the stakes of the story.

“Even now my heart fails within me when I recur to this rout of grim-visaged ideas. Now subdued almost to tears, now raving in my agony, still I wandered along the rocky shore, which grew at each step wilder and more desolate. Hanging rocks and hoar precipices overlooked the tideless ocean; black caverns yawned; and for ever, among the seaworn recesses, murmured and dashed the unfruitful waters.”

The key formulaic detail that alters the text from condensed story-telling to the sudden feeling of immersion is found in the dialogue, and the effect which reflects the very title itself becomes complete. The story literally “transforms” from the diegetic to the mimetic, serving to move a claustrophobic texture to that which is open and breathable, allowing for a lightening of the mind, a chance to ride the wave of the plot-line.

Transformation stands in opposition to Frankenstein when the ending unfolds, and for this we are thankful. The sense of tragedy that clung to the lives of people before and during the Victorian Era is hard to fathom — Chartism was a nightmare, civil rights were unheard of, children had it very rough, and the continual presence of death from disease, most notably in tuberculosis among others, must have been a nuisance. To read then a story in which a protagonist changes his ways to become a better person is the kind of writing of which, if Shelley was a conduit of the times, then what she gave back was the notion that matters do not have to remain as they stand.


Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Essay, 1967. UbuWeb, 2019.

Jones, Howard Mumford. Introduction. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, 1742. The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1939.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” In a Glass Darkly. London, 1872.

Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London, 1762.

Shelley, Mary. “Transformation.” The Keepsake. London, 1831.

Wilde, Oscar. “Birthday of the Infanta.” A House of Pomegranates. London, 1891.