Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review: Carmilla by J. S. Le Fanu

My relationship with Carmilla is almost lifelong. A homoerotic horror novella from 1872 isn’t typical reading fare for an elementary school-aged kid, but you can blame Scholastic. I have no idea why the children’s publishing company put out an edition of the book, but the copy of J. S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla that I encountered as a young girl looked typical of popular novels of the time. The mention of vampires excited me, as I already had well-thumbed copies of both Vampires and Werewolves from Bantam’s Weird and Horrible Library. Filled with creepy medieval woodcuts and stories from folklore, I read those books as history. (Something going back that far had to be real, didn’t it?) I’m sure the language and vocabulary of Carmilla were far over my head, but before I picked it back up as an adult, I still retained an impression of both somnambulism and anagrams -- things that still interest me today.
The Scholastic version of Carmilla.



Years later, I rediscovered Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu when I became interested in Victorian-era mystery and horror. I read the Dover editions of both Uncle Silas, a locked room mystery with occult undertones, and In a Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories and novellas, including “Green Tea,” a bizarre tale of a man terrorized by an invisible monkey demon. It was in In a Glass Darkly that I encountered Carmilla a second time. My most recent (and third) reading coincided with a trip to Ireland. One of the hotels where I stayed was around the corner from Le Fanu’s home (I blogged about it here), so it was a stroke of serendipity that I was offered an advance copy of Syracuse University Press’ new edition of Carmilla just before I left for its author’s stomping grounds.


Carmilla predates Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years, and its influence on the more popular vampire book is noticeable. In his original manuscript, Stoker even placed Dracula in a castle in Styria -- the same setting as Carmilla -- before ultimately changing it to Transylvania. Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing is deeply indebted to Le Fanu’s Baron Vordenburg, the first vampire expert in fiction. It’s Lucy Westenra that owes the most to Carmilla, though. The women are strikingly similar in description: both are beautiful and languid, large-eyed and slender. More notably, both are sleepwalking seductresses. In many ways, the character Carmilla is the vampire Lucy Westenra would have become if Dracula ended differently. Although Carmilla came first, with name changes, it could almost be read as an alternate ending to Dracula.


While you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who never heard of Dracula, Carmilla hasn’t fared quite as well in popular culture. It’s still on the radar, though, far more than many other gothic horror books of the 19th century. Persistent interest in vampires is one reason the book sticks around, but I don’t think vampires alone keep interest in Carmilla alive. Erotic lesbian vampires, on the other hand … now that’s something to keep filmmakers and academics interested for decades and decades, and both continue to remake and re-analyze Carmilla from time to time.


Illustration from the original Carmilla.
Carmilla isn’t very long, and it isn’t very complex, which may be another reason filmmakers like it -- it’s a template. The story’s ingenue is Laura, who longs for companionship in a secluded castle with her father. When the young and beautiful Carmilla ends up in the family’s care, the two feel an immediate bond. While obsessed with Carmilla, Laura also notices strange things about her: mood changes, secrecy, and, of course, the previously-mentioned somnambulism. Laura has nightmares of a creature biting her in her sleep, and over time she becomes listless and pale, her life seeming to drain out of her. The rest of the story is a vampire-hunting adventure, and while it delivers on the creep factor, the highlights of the book are in Carmilla’s steady and sinister seduction of Laura:


"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.”"


At times, though, it’s unclear just who is seducing whom. Laura’s obsession with her friend  is hardly hidden. She says of Carmilla’s hair:


"I have often placed my hands under it, and laughed with wonder at its weight. It was exquisitely fine and soft, and in colour a rich very dark brown, with something of gold. I loved to let it down, tumbling with its own weight, as, in her room, she lay back in her chair talking in her sweet low voice, I used to fold and braid it, and spread it out and play with it."


Laura’s desire, though, is mixed up with fear:


"In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling."


The mixture of lesbian sexual obsession and vampirism has attracted filmmakers since 1932, starting with Carl Dreyer’s stylized and atmospheric German film Vampyr. Dreyer played down the lesbianism and upped the horror, going to extreme lengths to capture the right look. (It is said that
Still from Dreyer's The Vampyr.
the filthy look of the doctor's surgery was the result of the director breaking jars of jam on the floor, then shutting off the room for a month to let mold and insects accumulate.) The first film to adhere

to Carmilla’s homoeroticism was in 1960, with Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses, titled Et Mourir de Plaisir in French (literally: To Die of Pleasure). The story has been adapted several times since, both faithfully and with only the most tenuous of connections, from Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers to the 1989 film with Meg Tilly as Carmilla.


You can see that Blood and Roses follows parts of Carmilla closely in the clip below. From Carmilla:


I saw Carmilla, standing near the foot of my bed, in her white night-dress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.
 


The Syracuse University Press edition of Carmilla is decidedly a definitive one, and I recommend it for both academics and those reading it for kicks. The text itself is the result of a comparison of the first publication, as serialized in the journal The Dark Blue, with Carmilla’s subsequent publication in the collection In a Glass Darkly. Extensive notes indicate differences in the text, which is helpful for those doing serious study (or even just for word nerds like me). The essays following this edition range in subject from Carmilla as an Irish novel to the vampire aesthetic. Particularly of interest to me is is Nancy West’s “On Celluloid Carmillas,” which examines the
Syracuse University Press' critical edition of Carmilla
many film versions of Le Fanu’s story, as well as films it has directly influenced.


I highly recommend that you get to know Carmilla, because chances are, you’ll run into her somewhere, whether in fiction or film. Just like in the novel, she’s going to be pretty hard to get rid of. 






Download the public domain edition of Carmilla at Project Gutenberg 






This post was written as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books blog event hosted by Patti Abbott. You can always find the full list of this week’s entries at her site. You can find my previous forgotten book reviews here.


15 comments:

  1. I read CARMILLA decades ago, but your fine review motivated me to order the Syracuse University Press edition so I can read again...properly. Like you, I read the DOVER editions of Le Fanu's work. Great stuff!

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    1. Oh, that's great, thanks. Some of the essays are pretty neat, too.

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  2. Splendid review Kelly, really wants to make me go and get this particular edition. I've seen most of the movies (the Dreyer is pretty much the only one that left any impression despite fancying Ingrid Pitt rotten when I was a teen) but not read it. But then I am not a great consumer of the genre, though I remain devoted to such authors as Fritz Leiber (especially CONJURE WIFE and his even better follow-up, OUR LADY OF DARKNESS), Matheson and Robert Bloch and have read my share of Lovecraft, Stephen King et al - this sounds great though, thanks.

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    1. Sounds like you read horror like I do. It's not one of my top genres by any stretch, but I've read a lot of 19th century stuff, and Lovecraft. I'll be doing a Matheson write-up for an upcoming FFB. King I'll dip into now and then.

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  3. Amazing that Lefanu's story almost single-handedly spawned an entire subgenre of trashy lesbo-vampire flicks. What would he think of the movies of Jean Rollin, clearly descended from Carmilla no matter what Rollin may say to the contrary? I never realized that the anagram joke in Charles Ludlum's genius love letter to Victorian/Edwardian sensation thrillers -- The Mystery of Irma Vep -- was inspired by Carmilla. That part of the story must've escaped me on first reading. Now like George I'll have to reread the story.

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    1. Oh, bonus points for the Ludlum reference! The Irma Vep anagram is probably originally inspired by Carmilla, but I'll bet that Ludlum got it more directly from the Irma Vep in the silent crime serial Les Vampires.

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  4. I've never read the book -- although your reviews makes me want to rectify that -- but my first encounter with CARMILLA was, believe it or not, a radio production.

    Here's a link to the broadcast's page on the CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER website. The year was 1975, and I still remember listening to it.

    http://www.cbsrmt.com/episode-318-carmilla.html

    The comments left by other listeners are very interesting.

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    1. That's very interesting. It sounds like it's pretty faithful, too. I'm going to have to download this. Thanks!

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  5. Never heard of this, but you've piqued my interested. "Erotic lesbian vampires" eh? That's some interesting reading for a kid.

    Lee
    A Faraway View

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    1. 19th century erotic lesbian vampires, to be precise. I didn't pick up on that aspect of it any more than I got the dirty parts of Shakespeare.

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  6. Les Daniels had hipped me to "Carmilla" in his historical/critical account LIVING IN FEAR before I'd gotten as far as Le Fanu (whom I first read in Scholastic anthologies and Dover collections, as well), so I was well aware of the lesbian nature of the story by the time I first read it, when about eleven...but I had forgotten about the anagrams. Truly, though, the terrifying aspects of particularly any first tides of lust work for us all, I think, to some extent or another. Jean Rollin wouldn't've been the only one (also) influenced by BLOOD AND ROSES, I suspect...seeing this clip (which might well've been mostly missing from the broadcast tv version of the film I vaguely recall seeing when not much more than eleven) put me powerfully in mind of CARNIVAL OF SOULS, as well, and that film's recurring dancing tableaux. (The Meg Tilly Carmilla might be my favorite among the performances of the character as I remember both story and enactment at the moment, though that late film was just OK.)(That my mother's name is Camilla, not infrequently misread as Carmilla, didn't escape my attention as well.)

    You can be sure that I will collect this one for Tuesday, as well.

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    1. Oh, and Scholastic loved Everything in the public domain.

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    2. And the discussion on the FictionMags list about this week's books was focused almost solely on reminiscence about first seeing the Vadim film, and its current relative inaccessibility in the home market...

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    3. Good observation re: Carnival of Souls. I wouldn't have thought of it.

      Did your mother ever happen to use the name Mircalla? :-)

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