BOOK REVIEW: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

CarmillaCarmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This gothic vampire novella is about 25 years older than its more famous subgenre peer, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Le Fanu’s work is not only much shorter, but is written in a more approachable style. The story takes inspiration from an event that is recorded in a book entitled “Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al.” (1751.) This tract on spirits, demons, ghosts, revenants, and vampires was written by a Benedictine monk and scholar, Dom Calmet. The story in question involves a village that was said to be having a problem with nocturnal visits from vampires. Try as they might, the villagers couldn’t get this vampiric pest problem under control. A mysterious visitor from the east (usually referred to as a “Hungarian”) stopped into town and offered his services, and – as the legend went – he succeeded in eliminating the vampires. A version of this story is presented late in the novella (Ch. 13) and it’s only then that one learns how that story influences the one Le Fanu writes in “Carmilla.”

The story in “Carmilla” revolves around a young woman who serves as the first-person narrator, Laura. Laura lives out in the countryside with only her father and the household servants. She is starved for interaction with people her own age, and her only female interaction is with the help. Early in the story Laura is excited because a friend of her father’s (the General) is supposed to be coming to visit, and he will be bringing his own ward – a girl of Laura’s age. But that visit is cancelled, and we learn that the girl fell ill and passed away.

When a carriage overturns on the road in front of Laura’s father’s property, it seems that Laura will get the female companion for whom she’s been yearning. The occupants of the carriage that we know of a are an adult woman and her daughter, Carmilla. The woman is unharmed, and says she must make her way to some distant location urgently on unstated business. However, her daughter, Carmilla, is frail by nature and it’s too risky for her to make the remainder of the journey. Laura’s father, a kind man who recognizes his daughter’s loneliness, offers to host Carmilla for a time until her mother can return for her.

Carmilla’s visit starts out well enough. Everything is normal during the day. Over time, Laura recognizes some dismaying personality traits of her visitor (i.e. Carmilla is a bit elitist and narcissistic,) but Carmilla is not without her charms. The nights, however, start getting progressively stranger and more disconcerting. At first, one can’t be certain to what degree something real is transpiring. I thought Le Fanu did a fine job of capturing the hazy hypnopompic world where one isn’t quite certain what is dream and what is reality. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that Laura is experiencing a real loss of vitality. Carmilla seems to be suffering similarly, but they have no basis to think this is new. Among Carmilla’s nocturnal strangeness is the fact that she’s a sleep-walker. One night she disappears and it’s thought that she might have been abducted or run away, but then she turns up none the worse for wear.

I’ll let the reader discover for him- or herself how events play out in the story.

Much has been made of the lesbian element of this story. In true Victorian nature, this isn’t at all explicit or graphic. The reader is given no reason to believe anything sexually romantic transpires. All one knows for a fact is that Carmilla is up-front about being into girls. As for Laura, all we really know is that she is comfortable with a certain degree of intimate physical contact from Carmilla that includes hugs and face touching in conjunction with comments of a vaguely suggestive nature. Laura could be a lesbian or bisexual, but she could also just be naïve and / or starved for physical contact. I don’t know enough about Le Fanu’s views to draw conclusions about any ulterior messages he may have intended. While the obvious ulterior intent is erotic, there are some who argue that the story presents an anti-lesbian message (i.e. don’t let your daughter hang out with touchy-feely friends or she’ll get “turned.”) I’m not enough of a literary historian to know whether such intent existed. Perhaps those who suggest this know enough about either Le Fanu or the literature of the time to have a sound basis. However, I don’t think one could reach that conclusion from the story alone.

I enjoyed this story. For writing from 1872, it’s readable, and – as I mentioned – I think Le Fanu does a good job of describing the supernatural elements of the story in a way that captures the surreal feel. Readers of modern vampire stories might be bored from the lack of crimson arterial spray and sundry grotesqueries, but the novella has got some other fine qualities such as how the story unfolds, i.e. how reveals are made. Not to mention, Le Fanu creates a character whose fate one cares about (rather than random redshirts stuck into the story for the express purpose of being slain.) If you liked Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or other vampire fiction, I think you’ll definitely want to give this one a read.

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