Book Review: Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

A long, long time ago, a well-read and learned online friend of mine recommended Le Fanu’s stories.

The novella, Carmilla, is available on its own. You can also do what I did and get a bigger collection of Le Fanu’s short stories :)

Here are ten highly interesting facts about this story!

1. It was written in 1872, which makes it one of the earliest vampire stories. It predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) by 26 years. (Wikipedia)

2. The anime Castlevania is where I actually first came across Carmilla from Styria. I always loved her icy cool and shrewd, bloodthirsty demeanor. Another wild fact is that Lenore (another character I loved from Castlevania in a…memorable scene with Hector) may have been inspired by Laura, the narrator of the original Carmilla novella. I say ”may” as I got that from Wikipedia but there was no original source mentioned. The Laura in the Castlevania game is a reference to the narrator in the novella. By the way, Laura was my actual maternal grandmother’s name.

I’d like to thank my bf for selecting this animation on Netflix. 🍿👌 Otherwise, I might have gotten distracted by some other series and taken a much longer time to discover this one.

Carmilla and Lenore from Castlevania. Pic from Newsweek

3. There were strong lesbian undertones (or should I say overtones?) in the novella regarding the connection between Laura and Carmilla. The characters’ sexuality was never explicitly mentioned but it didn’t dampen the attraction between them. Here’s a passage:

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.”

Carmilla, Chapter 4

It brings to mind other scenes both in cinema and from real life that are related to female desire. I think it can be a very colorful and complex landscape, which heats up even more in this vampiric life-and-death context.

4. The book that I have included a few marvelous illustrations. Here’s one where Carmilla was getting flustered by a funeral procession in the background. A “cry of suffering broke from her,” and she remarks that this is what “comes of strangling people with hymns” when her hysteria from the procession subsides.

Illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Le Fanu’s story Carmilla in The Dark Blue (January 1872)

5. The Dark Blue was a Victorian periodical which published J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla in four installments from 1871-1872. This article from The University of Victoria is a fantastic read on The Dark Blue’s history. From the article:

Carmilla features the first significant female vampire of the nineteenth century and the novella contains several narratological horror tropes that have become standard in the vampire genre.

The Dark Blue and Carmilla via uvic.ca

6. The pacing of the plot was good. It wasn’t painstakingly slow but there was still time and space for us to get to know the characters beyond a superficial level. I loved the vivid emotional states of Laura and Carmilla that were laced with mystery and intrigue. For example, they first met each other in a dream twelve years prior, a dream which haunted them ever since.

And we can’t help but hear the obsession in Carmilla’s voice when she says to Laura:

“I feel only that I have made your acquaintance twelve years ago, and have already a right to your intimacy; at all events, it does seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be friends. I wonder whether you feel as strangely drawn towards me as I do to you; I have never had a friend — shall I find one now?”

Carmilla, Chapter 3

7. On the whole, the entire storyline was a mixture of grand excitement and sadness for me. In Chapter VI (“A Very Strange Agony”), Laura is conscious in her room and aware of “a female figure standing at the foot of the bed . . . the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.” I would have probably had the life drained out of me had I seen “Carmilla, standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white nightdress, bathed from her chin to her feet in one great stain of blood.”

8. The scholar, Nina Auerbach, made an interesting observation about the “strange love” Carmilla mentions in Chapter VI (ref: Page 24 of Beauties and Beasts of Carmilla, by Shirley Ibach). Carmilla says that she was near dying when she experienced “a cruel love — [a] strange love” that would have taken her life. Auerbach interprets this “strange love” as the relationship that turned Carmilla into a vampire, and notes that the word “strange” could be a Victorian euphemism for homosexual love. This would suggest that Carmilla’s original maker was female.

Side note: I can’t hear the words “strange love” without thinking about the song from Depeche Mode of the same title, so here’s the vid from YouTube:

9. I won’t give spoilers, but I thought the last few pages of the story were perfect for a gothic romance. The last line was spot-on in capturing the lingering atmosphere and aftermath of this tragic love slash friendship.

10. The story I checked out after Carmilla was The White Cat of Drumgunniol. Basically, whoever sees the white cat DIES. It was entertaining and I’m looking forward to the other ghostly stories in this Le Fanu collection. It’s best read at night beside my grey cat and a nice cup of tea. 🍵

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