[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]
“This Gothic novella tells the story of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire named Carmilla. Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 25 years. Although Carmilla is a lesser known and far shorter Gothic vampire story, Stoker openly explained his influence by Le Fanu’s short story.“
[While deserved since it did come first, and includes a lot of what Dracula doesn’t, it’s annoying that most synopses of Carmilla all need to compare to Dracula. I get it’s a very short novella, but still. Carmilla was one of the first stories to be ‘open’ about LGBT+ themes, though Le Fanu had to be sneaky and say it ‘didn’t count’ because Carmilla isn’t human anymore in order to protect himself, but also used her attraction as an antagonistic trait. It also sort of set the stage for the general sexuality-leaning-into-romance vampire stories]
This is actually a re-read, because I haven’t read Carmilla since highschool. I decided to re-read it again because I was discussing the general ‘Carmilla’ vampire archetype [‘the female Dracula’ or ‘the sexy lady vampire’] to a friend of mine, and they had no idea that she originated in her own story, and especially not one that actually came before Dracula. They asked if I had it so they could read it, and I was super surprised that I no longer had my own copy of it. Being as I needed to correct that, I let them borrow the new copy I got first, and then re-read it for myself once they were done.
First and foremost, Carmilla is a rather short novella. My edition had surprisingly large print [but I guess not large enough to be considered ‘large print’] and still was only 100 pages. If spaced properly with smaller print, I’m sure it could easily be packed into 50 pages. That being said, from here on since there’s not a lot of story to go on, spoiler warning for the entire review.
In addition to being short, the story is rather simple. The protagonist is a young adult/teenaged girl named Laura, who is lonely and in want of a friend of both her age and gender. A family friend and his daughter were supposed to visit them and sate her loneliness, only for them to find out that the daughter died suddenly of suspicious circumstances. In equally strange and suspicious circumstances, a carriage accident happens outside of Laura’s home, and here is the introduction of Carmilla, who appears to be of Laura’s age and is the answer of Laura’s prayers. In order to rest and recuperate from the accident, Carmilla is left behind to stay with Laura and her father for a few months.
From here on, is where suspicious things begin to happen around them. Multiple women and girls in the surrounding houses and neighborhood start to get very ill, and suddenly die. Laura starts having strange visions and dreams, and starts to become pale and gaunt, though she feels no different, except for the occasional pain in her lower neck, that shows no injuries. Carmilla herself is a very strange girl. She’s uncannily beautiful and fair, and has strange habits of sleeping in very late in the date and has sensitivities to direct sunlight. She also has the wisdom and experiences of someone far older, but most of all, is very forward in her affections towards Laura, more than what was pretty standard between women and girls of those times.
The book portrays Carmilla’s desires for Laura pretty up front, for what was acceptable of the time. The descriptions of the way she looked, acted, and expressed [physical and otherwise] her wanting towards Laura are very blunt, including that she was becoming very emotionally attached to Laura, and even straight up telling her she loved her, and wanted her. Laura, however, naive in both her age and experience, seems rather confused and is completely oblivious to Carmilla’s advances.
Something to keep in mind with this, however, is that Carmilla was written when homosexuality was still very commonly, in all regions, punishable by torture and death. The author got away with even presenting Carmilla this way because due to the fact that she was no longer human, it no longer ‘counted.’ That, and her desires [romantic or otherwise] towards Laura were all depicted as a trait of antagonism in line with the contemporary views of homosexuality in said times.
Because of this, the relationship between Carmilla x Laura is not a good one. It’s very [mostly?] one-sided and predatory. Carmilla is killing other women/girls the entire time in order to feed, all the while using Laura as a sort of play-thing, and continuously feeding on her/killing her slowly. While I do believe based on what was expressed by Carmilla and hints at her thoughts, that she was attracted and growing emotionally and romantically attached to Laura, in more than just being her prey. But because Laura was not receiving her advances in the way she wanted [or really at all because she didn’t seem to understand until much later that these were advances at all] she was still feeding from her against her consent, and would eventually kill her and move on if allowed to continue.
During all this as well, there are more and more hints dropped of Carmilla’s vampirism. Dream imagery including seeing Carmilla turn into a cat-beast or covered in blood, Carmilla often disappearing in the middle of the night, the fact that Laura’s father is an antique art collector and finds a portrait of a long-dead Countess named Mircalla [All of Carmilla’s rotating names over the years are anagrams of her original name] who ‘shockingly’ looks like she could be Carmilla’s twin, etc.
When most of this subtext starts to whittle down with Laura growing weaker and more frail to the dismay of her father and confusion of multiple doctors, in comes the family friend that was mentioned in the beginning of the book, visiting the family and explaining everything that happened to he and his now-dead daughter. It’s essentially a play-by-play of everything that’s been happening to Laura, and the man explains that he’s on the hunt for the woman-vampire who killed his daughter, known as Millarca. [remember the anagram thing]
The ending/climax is the man and Carmilla recognizing each other, and a battle ensues. Carmilla vanishes from the abode of Laura [to her dismay, surprisingly] and the ending brings it back to the fact that the telling of the story is actually from an older Laura’s perspective in a letter/diary setting, reflecting on what happened to her/and how she almost died and the fate of Carmilla herself.
While I was writing this, my SO asked me a question that disarmed me a bit. ‘Is it good?’
It took me a moment to really think about it, especially since my review thus far was already extremely long for such a short story. Despite that I hate having to bring up another comparison to Dracula, honestly I sort of view the ‘is it good?’ question like I do with Dracula. It’s very dated, but I don’t know if I’d consider them ‘good’ as much as I would other classics, such as Frankenstein. It’s… okay? But do I recommend them to people? Yes.
I recommend Carmilla for a lot of reasons. I recommend it as a ‘required reading’ for anyone wanting to know historical texts, especially relating to the history of vampire literature or just vampires in general. People always seem to assume Dracula is the first of its kind, when actually, neither is Carmilla. [PS – Varney came first before either] The difference is, Dracula wouldn’t exist without Carmilla, and she is the quintessential ‘female vampire’ as well as literally the creator of the lesbian vampire genre/trope.
The story of Carmilla, despite writing homosexuality as evil, is also very important LGBT+ character and in general important to the LGBT+ community. It’s why I don’t mind the changes that modern media have given her when they keep her non-hetero background intact [it should also be noted that Countess Mircalla apparently did court at least one man while she was still human, but whether that was because she was forced to because of the times, or because she may have been bisexual was never really defined. What is defined, is that when she became a vampire and was free to do whatever she desired, she explicitly preys on/seduces women only] and let her show love and caring, even for those she preys on. Vampires have constantly been romanticized, more and more over the years, and I feel like whether she’s allowed to remain an actual predatory villain, or a misunderstood woman who is stuck with poor circumstances being a vampire and all, both of these can encompass her character.
In fact, I also love a lot of portrayals of Carmilla where she’s just 100% monstrously evil. What I don’t like is when she’s reduced to just being ‘the sexy lady vampire’ where her overtly sexual nature is also rarely ever is turned towards other women and mostly there for the eye candy or ‘well, I guess we should have at least ONE female vampire, here, let’s name her Carmilla and give literally no context as to why we’ve chosen to give her that name.’
Now that I’ve ranted some more about her importance, back to the book itself. Carmilla is short, and is a very predictable vampire story. But it’s predictable, because of itself! Carmilla helped make the vampire trope and stories we all can see coming from a mile away these days. But back then, what a page turner. Being as this is my second read, I also already knew everything that was going to happen, but I wanted to re-read it now that I’m an adult and have been out of the closet for quite awhile. I did somehow sorta-kinda forget the prose/style it’s written in though, despite that I know it’s old as dirt. I had to re-adjust my brain for a few seconds to get back into 1800’s verbage. Oh, and don’t forget this is also very much a time of fear and phobias of ‘foreigners.’
PS – I never want to see the word ‘schloss’ [schloß] again. Apparently Le Fanu couldn’t think of any other words that could be used interchangeably and so it’s used in the story constantly.
Honestly, if you have even the slightest interest in this novella, just give it a shot. It’s super short and a generally easy read, you can easily finish it in a day or two and it won’t be a waste of time even if you didn’t like it, and you’ll be educated on a story that helped create a horror genre.
I give Carmilla 4/5 Blood-Soaked Nightgowns
“I forget all my life preceding that event, and for some time after it is all obscure also, but the scenes I have just described stand out vivid as the isolated pictures of the phantasmagoria surrounded by darkness.”
“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”
“I have been in love with no one, and never shall.” She whispered, “unless it should be with you.”
She kissed me silently.
How beautiful she looked in the moonlight.
PS – can we just take a moment in closing to appreciate this illustration made for the book? Make sure to click on it to expand the full image.
There’s Laura, boob out, and Carmilla is 100% going in for the grab. Like… 100% mesmerized and going in for the tiddy.