Fiends with Benefits: A Review of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Laura in Bed, Illustration by D.H. Friston. 1972

A carriage overturns and a young woman is taken to the family schloss in Styria to recuperate. The 19 year old Laura who lives there visits the guest and the horror seeps out: “What was it that, as I reached the bedside and had just begun my little greeting, struck me dumb in a moment, and made me recoil a step or two from before here? I will tell you.”

And tell us she does. The two young women recognize each other from a dream they had when they were young and with this bond they become companions. Yet something is off-kilter. Laura has oppressive dreams in which a figure bites her on the breast. Yes, it seems this vampire has a bit of a titty fetish. She sees or dreams or imagines that Carmilla is in her room. There are deaths in a nearby town. A painting of a long ago countess looks much like Carmilla. Gothic elements are all here and they work their magic. Women are ruled by emotion, men by reason, the cultural perceptions of gothic and victorian society. Women are subject to flights of emotion that control them but which are barely understood. Soon I swoon with the liquor of ruins and overgrown walks and moonlit nights and melodrama. Here is a nice section:

“In this solitude, having just listened to so strange a story, connected, as it was, with the great and titled dead, whose monuments were moldering among the dust and ivy round us, and every incident of which bore so awfully upon my own mysterious case — in this haunted spot, darkened by the towering foliage that rose on every side, dense and high above its noiseless walls — a horror began to steal over me, and my heart sank as I thought that my friends were, after all, not about to enter and disturb this triste and ominous scene.”

Inside the castle the heavy suspense rises like dust from wall tapestries taken down for their five year beating. True to the gothic form events unfold slowly and in murky light. Instead of creaks and screams from distant hallways a rising knowledge emerges — that Carmilla is a sinister, predatory entity. She tends to sleep in the daytime and she is known to sleepwalk. Over time Laura’s father and General Baron Spielsdorf figure out that Carmilla was once known as Mircalla or the once Countess Karnstein. They track Carmilla to her family grave and there find the woman sleeping with her eyes open. The drive a stake through her heart and cut off her head and burn it, the norm for, pardon he pun, putting a vampire out of circulation. Sadly.

Le Fanu is a writer for whom the close-up shows character emotions. So there is lots of touching.

“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.”

Curious and curiouser. It does seem that Laura is both vamp-curious and bi-curious. In a very ineresting article William Veeder says the word “curious” appears more than twenty-one times in the novella. And in his close reading of what he calls a tale of repression, he makes a good argument that Laura’s real desire is to know herself (1).

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Varney the Vampire publication, 1845. A penny dreadful publication. Wikimedia commons

As a young boy watching vampire movies, probably one with Christopher Lee or Frank Langella and his group of teeth-baring groupies, even then I was struck by the sexual undertones. Nightgown clad women glided toward the viewer and prompted the question: Death for sex? Immortal life for a bit of bite? A nip of the neck with everlasting dedication? But it seems this is not new idea located in those films. Le Fanu’s story is rife with the same desire and ringtone. Carmilla is a novel about repressed sexuality (Carmilla) and budding sexuality (19 year old Laura). To follow the theme forward we find a similar predatory sexual behavior that would link Nabakov’s Lolita and later Homes’ The End of Alice. That Carmilla has lived a long time and seemingly needs to fall in love before any real consummation is interesting, it makes one wonder about her previous subjects and their status, are they part of a harem? Are they wandering the night? Did the relationship sour? ‘But, you said forever.’ Insert meme here.

I ended up rooting for Carmilla. I want her to continue. I want Laura to be convicted and given a post-life sentence. I can imagine a great book with the two wandering about eternity, bonded in immortality, love, and blood draining escapades. Maybe I should consider writing the novel.

The book is brief, it’s not deep, yet it sets the stage nicely, situated right up there with the Walpole’s Castle of Ortranto and so it’s worth a stormy night’s investment.

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The Vampire. Philip Burne-Jones, 1897. Wikimedia commons

Carmilla was published first in The Dark Blue between 1871 and 1872 and included in the collection titled In a Glass Darkly of 1872. Le Fanu, Irish writer of horror and mystery, was admired by M.R. James, the other big name in early horror, and it’s possible that Bram Stoker drew upon Carmilla for Dracula. He originally set the scene at Styria before switching to Transylvania. That said, nothing in Carmilla can beat Stoker to the line. “…I went to search [and] I saw the dead eyes, and in them, dead though they were, such a look of hate, though unconscious of me or my presence, that I fled from the place….” And what about that scene, the one we all remember because it’s burnt into our brains of Count crawling down the wall. This was true horror. And of course I never could figure out why such a vital moment was so pathetically given short shrift in Coppola’s Dracula (1992). But then that movie makes a mess of timing and focus anyhow so it’s no surprise. But read this brilliant scene from the original Stoker:

“I looked out over the beautiful expanse, bathed in soft yellow moonlight till it was almost as light as day. In the soft light the distant hills became melted, and the shadows in the valleys and gorges of velvety blackness. The mere beauty seemed to cheer me; there was peace and comfort in every breath I drew. As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a storey below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms, that the windows of the Count’s own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned, and though weatherworn, was still complete; but it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.

“What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.”

Whatcha, waddya, blimey, yikes and wow.

What Carmilla also does is to provide a narrow range of fodder for those into literary analysis with it’s homoeroticism, possible lesbian-gothic theme, and it’s signaling of literature’s movement from middle to late gothic. There’s enough vampire culture out there that it can be compared to, most derivatively Carl Theodore Dreyer’s fascinating Vampyr (1932) the film said to be based on elements the novella and other stories from In a Glass Darkly or later to the tone found in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s sweetly blue collar horror Let the Right One In.

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Sheridan Le Fanu. Wikimedia commons

The career of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was long and varied, and, despite his personal problems, he made a significant contribution to Irish literature. As his admirer and bibliographer S. M. Ellis describes his work: “in [it] … there is something akin to the panoramic pilgrimage of human life, the sunshine and the shadows, the joy and the tragedy, the happy song and the dirge of sorrow, the high lights of the hills of romance and the dark valley through which all must shudderingly pass ere they reach the oblivion of the tomb.” (2)

The novella focuses on “Our dual existence, and its intermediates” to use the words of Le Fanu. In it are the fully expsed contrasts of self and other; human and vampire; living and dead; mortal and immortal; waking world and dreaming world; sexual self and sexual other. Even Carmilla is not only her present self. “Aye,” he said; “that is Millarca. That is the same person who long ago was called Mircalla, Countess Karnstein.” So to build on this, we might find Carmilla inviting Laura into her calm lair, embracing her with those lilac arms, a tender lacrimal scene because lust is forever lost.

Evidently for Le Fanu, vampires are a bit odder than we know. Vampires seek something like sympathy and consent. They are not the brutal killer as found in say Sebastià Alzamora’s Blood Crime nor do they simply overpower with hypnosis and brute jaw power. Further, take a look at this scene upon opening the coffin to find a semi-amphibious being:

“Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men, one officially present, the other on the part of the promoter of the inquiry, attested the marvelous fact that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed.”

That initself is a shocking detail because it doesn’t correspond to what we know of vampires from popular culture.

When Laura’s father remarks that the Countess Mircalla has been dead more than a century, the General Baron Spielsdorf replies, “Not so dead as you fancy, I am told.” I hope not. There’s more to this story and these characters that deserves to be explored.

References

1. Veeder, W. (1980). Carmilla: The Arts of Repression. Texas Studies in Literature and

Language, 22(2), 197–223. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy2.acad.ca/stable/ 40754606

2. Ellis, S. M. (1951). Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, and Others. London, UK: Constable

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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