Before Dracula, there was Carmilla

10 December 2011

“Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood.”

—Carmilla

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was destined to become the universally-acknowledged masterwork of vampire fiction, but it was not, by any means, the first of its kind. Stokers genius consisted not in having invented the modern vampire monster, but in the imaginative way he synthesized and expanded upon the ideas that prior authors had already been exploring.

One of these was J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose 1872 tale Carmilla provided a template for many of Dracula’s best-remembered characters and motifs, including the occult doctor (Dr. Hesselius), and the lonely Gothic castle set in a barbarous region of Europe. Many of the proper names in Dracula, in fact, are direct allusions to Carmilla’s characters and settings: “Karnstein” became “Carfax,” “Reinfeldt” became “Renfield,” and so on. Le Fanu’s protagonist, Laura, corresponds roughly to Stoker’s Mina; both are afflicted young women whose souls come depend upon their families’ efforts to unravel the vampire mystery. 

Carmilla is told in the first person, from Laura’s point of view. She is a lonely Englishwoman who lives with her father and governesses in an ancient scholss in Styria (southeast Austria). After receiving word of the sudden death of a would-be guest, Bertha Reinfeldt, Laura and company gather on the castle drawbridge to admire a calm, full-moon night when an out-of-control carriage crashes in upon the scene. A weak, unconscious Carmilla is thrown from the compartment in the accident that ensues. Her “mother,” a mysterious noblewomen, professes to be on an urgent, secret mission, but reluctantly consents to leave Carmilla to recover in the family’s care. 

Laura quickly recognizes Carmilla from a dream she had as a child; a dream of being visited in bed at night, and bitten on the shoulder. Carmilla, too, professes to remember Laura from a corresponding dream, wherein she awoke to find herself in an unfamiliar bed chamber, and Laura there. Quickly, they develop an intimate friendship, characterized pressings of hands, kissing of cheeks, and plenty of blushing. 

Carmilla is weak and languid, but with quietly intoxicating, hypnotic charms, like a beautiful spider who numbs and immobilizes her prey. “Her murmured words,” says Laura, “sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into trance.” These murmured words include such sweet as “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever,” and, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so,”—you know, the usual stuff.

These advances make Laura uncomfortable at first, but she is lonely in big, empty castle, and so she consents to forgive Carmilla’s “infatuations.” Soon, she finds that she has falled under the influence of a strange malady:

Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river. This was soon accompanied by dreams that seemed interminable, and were so vague that I could never recollect their scenery and persons, or any one connected portion of their action. But they left an awful impression, and a sense of exhaustion, as if I had passed through a long period of great mental exertion and danger.

After all these dreams there remained on waking a remembrance of having been in a place very nearly dark, and of having spoken to people whom I could not see; and especially of one clear voice, of a female’s, very deep, that spoke as if at a distance, slowly, and producing always the same sensation of indescribable solemnity and fear. Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing, that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious.

This malady, she confesses, does hold a certain “fascination” for her, but all is not well. Carmilla’s love is not selfless and giving, it is hungry and jealous. As she says to Laura:

You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me, and hating me through death and after.

Le Fanu portrays his vampire not as a supernatural evil, but as a poorly-understood product of nature; an inhabitant of the unknown regions that lie between life and death. Though Carmilla is bothered by hymns and seems to disdain Christianity, her personal philosophy is naturalistic and amoral. She is neither good nor evil; she is a creature that behaves according to a predatory instinct, and Laura is her prey—or could there something more? In the concluding chapter, Laura writes that in cases like her’s, the vampire may choose to…

…husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.

Are these the sadistic cat-and-mouse games of a killer, or, in yearning for “sympathy or consent,” is Carmilla transcending her animal nature? 

Unfortunately, questions like these are left largely unanswered as the novella resolves itself according to the familiar devices of the Victorian ghost story, rather than by following its main thread—the relationship between Laura and Carmilla—through to its conclusion. In fact, the final chapter consists of little more than exposition intended to resolve the mystery of Carmilla’s vampirism for students of the occult, and offers little closure to the novella’s more engaging story of dark romance. Something feels unfinished. Did Le Fanu lack the vision to carry his good ideas to fruition, or was he merely obliged to conform to the social mores of this time? 

Certainly, there were a little of both at play.* Stoker worked wonders with Le Fanu’s most distinctive characters and setting, but in the context of a decidedly conservative novel that abandoned the original love story. Lesbian vampires would have to wait until the 20th century, when the story of Carmilla provided a template for a plethora of exploitation films that, in much the same vein of Le Fanu himself, used horror to safely explore society’s taboos in an era of censorship. 

Today “supernatural romance” is a bona fide sub-genre, with its own section in big-box bookstores, which openly market them to impressionable young adults. The vampires of modern popular culture may be superficially cool, but there is little in them that is truly subversive or risqué—or, for that matter, particularly scary. Something is missing. 

The literary vampires  of the 19th century were the product of a culture with strict sexual mores and tangible religious fear. Carmilla works as a horror story because Laura is portrayed as succumbing to a perverse and unholy temptation that the reader understands to carry severe metaphysical consequences. Dracula, likewise, creates tension by placing Mina’s soul in the balancein spite of her repentance, her salvation is made to depend solely upon the efforts of Van Helsing and company to slay the elusive Count. These are compelling 19th century plots, but if set a modern Britain where only 40% of Christians actually believe in Hell (59% in America) they just wouldn’t work. The cultural logic is simply too different. 

This is, of course, exactly why many of us seek out the stories of other times; they operate according to differen parameters than those to which we are accustomed. Lovers of romance seek out the Victorian novel for its simple marriage plot, with its assumed happiness ever afterthe product of a culture that was more comfortable repressing its discontent than our own. Likewise, to those of a more melancholy disposition, the Victorian Gothic affords an added dimension of religious fear; of sin, moral peril, heavenly reprisal and eternal hellfires; nightmares that haunted the 19th-century psyche, and found expression in the dark, dreadful musings of one J. Sheridan Le Fanu. 

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4 Comments to “Before Dracula, there was Carmilla”

  1. David MacDowell Blue

    I’m the author of THE ANNOTATED CARMILLA, and methinks you’re missing that the ambiguities in the story–including the final chapter–are utterly deliberate. If you read carefully, the narrator is telling the story to someone specific, someone she evidently feels may judge her. In short CARMILLA makes a fine example of the “unreliable narrator” especially when one considers how she suddenly stops describing anything at all about her feelings once Carmilla is unmasked. But even so, there are still hints her emotions remain confused. There’s a new film version called STYRIA in post-production now.

    • Thanks. I do see your point about the unreliable narrator. When I finished the story I came away with a sense that Laura must have had some unspoken feelings about Carmilla, but Le Fanu does so very little to convey this that I was left wondering how much he was making a purely creative choice and how much he might have been censoring himself. Is there perhaps overlap between Laura’s inability to confess her feelings in the ending, and Le Fanu’s reluctance to write about them more explicitly?

      It’s great that there’s a new film coming out–I’ll definitely keep a look out for that.

  2. Hi the Annotated Carmilla sounds like a good read, I can’t find much info about the short story at all, the author did leave many unanswered questions, or the answers given were too vague… Did he intend to write a sequel perhaps? Is a shame he died shortly after publishing this tale. While I find the vampire lore too overhyped especially in this Twilight, True Blood era…. Yuck… Carmilla was a breath of fresh air, not a corny martial arts sucker that fears the sun and has no reflection but a beautiful young, eloquent woman that even has a pulse so remains too easily above suspicion. Well the truth is I read Carmilla as she’s branded a lesbian hehe, I knew nothing about her till recently this year. (Oh yes that poor spoof movie Lesbian Vampire Killers had her though she was a Xena with fangs than a half accurate portrayal!)

    So I am intrigued by the vampire rules used in Carmilla, very far from the standard that Dracula used of sunlight, garlic and what not. Carmilla seems to have almost no vampiric weakness but I do wonder why she must return to her coffin and why is she immersed in blood? Why did she flee twice from fighting ancient Spielsdorf? Why does she turn into a cat? Who was that pedlar that sold them charms? Was he a vampire himself? How many victims has she claimed in her 150 years? All were female as we’re told in the book, her feeding times varied… The biggest mystery was her ‘mother’ and co. Who were they? Was this elaborate infiltration used on Bertha and Laura a necessity or just an amusement for Carmilla? She didn’t need an invite as such for her ‘snack’ victims as far as we know)
    What I did find wonderful was how her names are all anagrams of her human name, I’ve not seen that rule used in other vampire myths.

    Well it sure has left its mark, for a short story especially. I often frowned on vampires as monsters, I see them for their weaknesses and disgusting activities but for some reason though I knew Carmilla was one I felt pity for her inevitable end, though I knew she was a fiend I find myself defending her actions, perhaps she really did love some of her victims and felt some remorse… I wanted a fairytale ending between Laura and Carmilla, where Laura was spared from death and damnation I will add…

    Dracula may be the best known but the good vs evil, aristocratic camp vampire lore has been overdone and overplayed for my liking, we need more tales like Joseph Le Fanu’s! I don’t think Le Fanu was shy from being more explicit with his writing, he did so with Carmilla but Laura was a different sort of character, while it’s clear she still has a place for Carmilla in her heart (She spoke of her fondly throughout) she couldn’t ignore that she was a monster, a murderer. Carmilla was slain and Laura survived (Though not for long sadly, how did she die?), if Laura admits to being madly in love with her predator it would come across as evil conquering good would it not? Psychologically she never fully recovered, anyhow I think it’s unfair to attributing the less conclusive final chapter to a lack of writing skills or fear of public reaction. My guess is Le Fanu may have wanted to conclude the story at some later point, if he had lived longer or perhaps he just wanted it open ended as a lasting legacy (Bram Stoker was won over!)

  3. Cool story

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