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:
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"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."
|Still from Dreyer's The Vampyr.|
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
many film versions of Le Fanu’s story, as well as films it has directly influenced.
|Syracuse University Press' critical edition of Carmilla|
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.
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.