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.

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