“Carmilla” (1872)

Scandalous levels of 19th-century boobage and INCREDIBLE MUSTACHES. If that isn’t enough for you, you dead. (Wikipedia)

By a strange coincidence I had just started reading Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla when I came across the trailer for Styria (see below). Not yet being familiar with the story, I didn’t immediately recognize it as a remake. The film looks pretty good from the trailer. But any film version of Carmilla has quite a lot to live up to, because the story is excellently Gothic and, in my admittedly limited experience, seems to be one of the better vampire stories.

I know, it’s a crime that I, who work in Ireland and love horror, have just now read this seminal work. I’ll save my witty rejoinder for after you GET THAT HORRIBLE GIANT SPIDER OFF YOUR HEAD OH MY GOD WATCH OUT too late it made a nest in your ear.

Right, so Carmilla is about a British/Austrian nobleman and his daughter, Laura, who live in a castle in a region of Austria called Styria, and spend their days, I assume, spinning around its wood-paneled halls wearing giant hoop skirts, top hats and/or mutton chops, bathing in rosewater and eating petit fours. The story, actually, is framed as Laura’s account as recorded by one Dr. Hesselius, detailing some strange events from her youth (stranger even than the time the servants asserted their right to not work 90 hours a week and be paid in bread crusts and cholera). The first of these events happened when Laura was just six years old (she’s nearing thirty at the time the narrative is written by Dr. Hesselius), and involved a nocturnal visit from a creepy little girl, a vague impression of a piercing pain in her breast, and some other not at all vampiric stuff that would probably never play an important role in anything ever again.

Then the narrative jumps ahead to 18-year-old Laura, who has led a thoroughly sheltered life with only her doting dad and two multilingual au pairs for company. Laura is in a tizzy about an upcoming visit from the daughter of her daddy’s friend, who will be the first young lady of Laura’s own age that she’s met in, like, ever. Then comes the unfortunate news that the young lady who was to visit has passed away suddenly, and Laura’s hopes are positively dashed. For a few seconds. Literally, like, moments after Laura’s dad breaks the news, a wagon comes barreling through the woods, flips over a tree root, and deposits the lovely but sickly Carmilla practically in Laura’s lap. Actually Carmilla and her mother, an imposing woman who convinces Laura’s father to take charge of her daughter while she gallops off to parts unknown on a secret mission that she dare not speak of, which will take her precisely three months.

Important lesson: Do not spontaneously adopt strangers’ children, especially when they offer precisely zero explanation as to why this is necessary.

So Laura and Daddy take Carmilla home while Carmilla’s mom rolls out, and of course, this was a terrible terrible idea. Carmilla is in love–Le Fanu uses that expression again and again–with Laura, to an extent that begins to overstep even Victorian levels of sisterly affection (there’s lots of cheek-kissing with “hot lips,” and promises to die together, and probably also backrubs). This, actually, is an interesting aspect of the tale (which many critics have fixed on before me). There are fairly overt suggestions of lesbian love (entirely from Carmilla–Laura does not return them, and is in fact horrified by them), which potentially speak to contemporary attitudes about homosexuality (i.e., these impulses are embodied entirely in the vampiric, beastly, but seductive Carmilla). I’ll leave the speculation to more qualified readers than I, but it lends the tale an interesting undertone that doesn’t often surface even in contemporary horror (or its related genres).

Eventually Laura starts to exhibit the telltale symptoms of vampire-victimhood (lethargy, nightmares, repeats of the nocturnal visit she remembers from her childhood). There are a couple of deliciously creepy nighttime scenes with Laura lying awake as a monstrous presence (a giant cat, refreshingly) stalks around the foot of the bed, or a vague but frightening female figure flits around the room, standing perfectly still but appearing in different places. In fact, wading through the sometimes painfully florid narrative–so many moments of genteel befuddlement, and so many genteelly-befuddled run-on sentences–would at times be difficult if not for these payoff moments. There’s virtually no real characterization, which is funny, because Le Fanu tries to convince you otherwise. There’s plenty of description of characters, usually of the rosey sugary adulatory kind (“Oh I say, she certainly was the heavenliest creature that ever passed a sugared crumpet over its divine lips and down its hallowed esophagus into a delightful chamber of pleasantly-seething digestive goop, wot.”), and as events progress, of the Lovecraftian incredibly-slowly-dawning-horror kind (“Dear god, would that I had the words to describe the horror of the gibbering abomination that stood before me in place of my once-beloved! I lack the words, alas, so instead I shall continue narrating in the hopes that I shall discover them! Gibbering! Gibbering is one of the words!”).

But I say all this with love. Carmilla is a charming, mildly sexy, and occasionally creepy tale packed to the gills with the lovely attention to place and scenery that is a hallmark of Gothic literature. Interestingly, there is none of the sense of decay that characterizes the writings of later authors in this tradition (looking at you, Lovecraft): everything is rosy and wonderful, with the one minor point of their being a bloodsucking ghoul on the loose.

Best of all is the explicit mention of folklore, and the discussion of Austrian traditions concerning the oupire/vampire. One character, near the novella’s end, quips, “These rustics preserve the local traditions of great families, whose stories die out among the rich and titled so soon as the families themselves become extinct.” This is precisely the idea of “sunken culture,” a concept that characterized evolutionary models of social science right up through the early 20th century. The idea was that all cultures evolved on a fixed axis, and certain groups were simply further along the evolutionary ladder than others. However, peasants and “primitive” people, usually illiterate, were thought to retain ancient traditions much longer, including by parasitizing the culture of an earlier generation of social elites.

Good old Sheridan also leaves several unanswered questions. This isn’t heavy-handed ambiguity, either; it’s straight-up missing information, which in this case, I like. Who was the “mother” who deposited Carmilla with the various families whose daughters she intended to dine upon? Who were the men who accompanied her? Who was the black woman in a turban that one of the servants thought she saw in the wagon with Carmilla’s mother? Who indeed! But, seriously, I have no idea.

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Thanks to the incredible Project Gutenberg, you can read Carmilla in its entirety here.

And for good measure, here’s the trailer for Styria. It looks far more action-oriented than the novella, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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7 thoughts on ““Carmilla” (1872)

    • Aw thanks. Yeah, Gutenberg is pretty wicked. Or Kindle, if you’re so inclined–you can download it for free on Amazon (but I think it actually is the Gutenberg edition, so it’s six of one, half dozen of the other).

  1. I read Carmilla recently, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Loved wallowing in the flowery victorian prose and imagining how hot under the collar those [not so] prim Victorian’s would have got just imagining what it all meant!

    • Well said. Yeah, it’s delightfully scandalous, by which I mean, not at all by today’s standards, but clearly very much so by theirs. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in Le Fanu’s study (or wherever he wrote it). I imagine him rolling a glass of brandy in one hand and cackling madly as he wrote about heaving bosoms and flushing cheeks.

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