REVIEW: Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

In an isolated castle deep in the Austrian forest, Laura leads a solitary life with only her ailing father for company. Until one moonlit night, a horse-drawn carriage crashes into view, carrying an unexpected guest – the beautiful Carmilla. So begins a feverish friendship between Laura and her mysterious, entrancing companion. But as Carmilla becomes increasingly strange and volatile, prone to eerie nocturnal wanderings, Laura finds herself tormented by nightmares and growing weaker by the day… Pre-dating Dracula by twenty-six years, Carmilla is the original vampire story, steeped in sexual tension and gothic romance.

Warnings: Violence, Racism

Category: F/F

While Dracula may be the most famous vampire novel, it is not the first to tackle the gothic legends of undead blood drinkers. Predating it by two decades is Carmilla, one of the oldest vampire novels and one that Stoker was influenced by in his own writing. Carmilla is a gothic lesbian horror romance, perfectly chilling and mesmerizing all at once.

The writing in Carmilla is beautifully sentimental, everything described with lush prose and a haunting sense of atmosphere. It reads quite dreamlike, as Laura recounts her experiences when the mysterious girl Carmilla comes to stay with her and her father in their Styrian castle. The story follows the strange happenings that occur after the arrival of Carmilla, the ways in which the two girls become close fast friends, coinciding with Laura’s weakening disposition and illness, and Carmilla’s increasingly possessive and affectionate behaviour towards Laura. It draws out its mystery and its horror elements well, keeping the reader in a surreal state of foreboding and eerie languor. While certainly not as action oriented as Dracula, I found it more engaging due to being much more intimate in nature, the relationship between Carmilla and Laura a lot more interesting that the relationship between Dracula and Harker.

The story is deeply set in Laura’s POV and experiences, and conveys wonderfully her emotions which are complicated as her relationship with Carmilla develops. At times she loves Carmilla dearly, and at other time she is deathly afraid of her, and sometimes she is both all at once. As her love and desire grow so too does her fear and her horror, and this is perhaps what makes the book so compelling; of course as a mystery it cannot function as the audience is already very well aware of what Carmilla is and what is taking place. However, its engagement lies in how we see the developing situation through Laura’s eyes and how we come to feel her emotions and understand her thoughts concerning them. We feel afraid with her, we fall in love with Carmilla with her, and we mourn the events and the intimacy along with her.

Laura introduces us to Styria, the country in which the story is set and the land in which her father has purchased his estate. While she is without a mother, she is cared for in the small castle by her father and her governess. The book goes to lengths to weave its setting, as Laura explains the countryside of Styria, the neighbouring villages, as well as the ruins of a nearby village and the legend that surrounds its destruction which is of course, integral to the story of the vampire Carmilla. The gothic scenery of her castle as well as the mystical nature of the world around her, all seem to come alive in this story for the reader. However it is important to note how much of the fear and horror surrounding these older vampire stories comes from a fear of the foreign, and much is made to do of the fact that the country in which she resides is simple and primitive and superstitious. There is some unfortunate racial language during the scene in which Carmilla is introduced, and in general a picture of foreign feature s as indicative of evil, or curses.

While there is no explicit sex in this story, there is a constant sense of sensuality and a horror at the developing desire of the lead characters, in particular that of Carmilla, whose desire and lust is predatory in nature and consuming. She has several scenes in which she cajoles Laura to love her so much she would die for her, to give herself to her, to perish of love for her. These read as simultaneously romantic and frightening, as Carmilla’s love is possessive and destructive, and yet we understand that in her own twisted way she does indeed have love for Laura. These turbulent sensual desires lend a haunting and gripping sexual quality to the narrative. The vampire genre has of course often had that element of the “predatory lesbian” trope, and part of the nature of the fear aspect of this story is fear of desire- Carmilla could be seen the represent taboo sexual desires, and the story could be read as one about resisting said desires. That makes it a little problematic viewed through a modern progressive lens, but it does mean that it is dripping with queer sensuality. Even if the story itself is meant as an indictment of said sensuality, its hard to tear ones enjoyment away from that sensuality itself.

I really enjoyed reading the literary roots of the vampire genre, and digging into what is one of the oldest vampire novels for its historical insight into the vampire mythos. Vampires have always been infused with a kind of eroticism, and its interesting to see how far back that goes and the ways in which authors have used the vampire legend to express sexual desire as well as anxiety. I found Carmilla even more engaging that Dracula, and am wholeheartedly glad to add it to my bookshelf.

Have you read Carmilla? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!


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