Cold Reads: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
In 1872, a writer named Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu published a tale that in many ways paved the road for Dracula, Lestat, and hundreds of other bloodsuckers to come. This was the tale of Carmilla, an undead seductress who typified the bond between vampirism and sensuality and whose dark influence on the genre can still be felt to this very day.
Laura is a lonely nineteen-year-old girl who lives with her father in their castle amidst the wild forests of Styria. However, a series of strange coincidences bring some happiness into the girl's life. Laura and her father witness a terrible carriage accident just outside their estate, the two passengers escaping serious injury. One of the carriage riders is a stunningly beautiful girl whom Laura instantly becomes enchanted with. The girl, whose name is Carmilla, resides with Laura and her father until her mother can return from an urgent engagement. But something is not right with Laura's new guest. Carmilla has peculiar habits, such as sleeping until nearly dusk and constantly vanishing and reappearing about the grounds. Laura soon begins to fear that her new companion has some ominous connection to the nightly attacks she is suffering from at the hands of a bloodthirsty shadow...
Unlike most works concerning vampires, Le Fanu strays away from setting his tale in the "real world" and instead grounds his tale deeply in the realm of fantasy. You cannot help but feel that you are reading a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm instead of a story of undead maidens and graveyards. The castle and the forest that surrounds it are the type of places you imagine Hansel and Gretel stumbling onto while on their search for yummy sweets. The phantasmagoric atmosphere gives the horrible goings-on an even darker feel, emphasizing the evil that is occurring by having it take place in a land of sugarplums and candy canes. The Gothic trappings that adorn the tale hint at the more sinister elements of the story, such as the funeral procession through the forest and the eccentric characters of the monster-hunting baron and hunchback peddler. Le Fanu mixes these ingredients in his bubbling cauldron, supplying us with a taste of magic that leaves an aftertaste of decay in our mouths.
These shadings of the fantastique are also demonstrated during the scenes of Laura's nightmares. Le Fanu illustrates the spectral aspect of the vampire by having the victim experience her attacks through eerie and surreal dreams. The drawing of blood is likened to a spring of icy water flowing on all sides of Laura's body, making our skin crawl at the thought of a chilly death. Carmilla herself appears as a monstrous black cat stalking and slinking across Laura's bedchamber. This choice of animal felt quite appropriate in this case; instead of the typical vampire bat or frothing wolf hound, Carmilla is a feline predator, a creature possessing all her craftiness and intrigue. The vampire cat adds a primal, exotic terror to the shadowy dreamscapes and creates an intense and frightening atmosphere during these scenes.
In the same vein (sorry) as the setting of tale, the character of Carmilla seems to be a departure from the usual characterization of the vampire seen during the time of the tale's conception. Vampires, even Stoker's immortal creation, were nothing more than vessels of pure evil that were driven by an outstanding force to prolong their lives by drinking the blood of the living. Le Fanu brings a hint of humanity to Carmilla, showing us that she is not the two-dimensional beast that the majority of vampire fiction of the time told us. There are a few scenes where Carmilla seems to be aware of her nocturnal life and despairing of her terrible plight. Carmilla only feeds because she must in order to continue her existence and does not wish to infect others with her curse or kill them with her nightly feedings. This seems evident in the attachment Carmilla makes with each of her victims. Some readers may only see these bonds she makes as simply ways for her to close in on her prey, but I read it in a much different light. I believed that Carmilla genuinely did grow to love all the girls she became exposed to.
Like the Frankenstein monster and the little flower girl, Carmilla's touch is too tainted to hold anything in her grasp for too long. Laura is haunted by dreams of Carmilla attacking her in the night, and Carmilla seems to suffer from the same terrors as well. She is plagued by the guilt she feels over the death she invariably brings to each companion she makes. Le Fanu's vampire is tortured by her affliction rather than reveling in it, a bold move that allows the audience to see the multiple layers of even the most corrupted of monsters.
Carmilla is usually noted as being one of the first stories to explore the homosexual undertones of the vampire legend. Indeed, the relationship that develops between Laura and Carmilla appears to hint at a sexual attraction the characters may have for each other. Laura constantly states how Carmilla's beauty enraptures her and the two often embrace and kiss each other. But to examine the connection between Laura and Carmilla as a purely physical magnetism is to remove the depth Le Fanu fills his story with. The relationship of the girls works on a different and more complex level than shallow lustfulness.
The story is touching because it emphasizes the companionship and emotional link that is shared by the two leading ladies. Laura just wants a friend to fill her life with some happiness, never knowing Carmilla's terrible purpose. Likewise, Carmilla truly enjoys having someone to admire her and have a sisterly bond with. But the darkness that has a hold on Carmilla's deceased soul has twisted her into something deprived of the humanity she so desperately seeks. She is forced to destroy the things she loves most, as the saying goes. The beauty and love of the relationship are shattered by the forces of evil, an unsettling conclusion that has us sympathizing with the victimized Laura as well as the ravenous Carmilla. The final scene involving Carmilla's extermination is more of an act of release and redemption than a deed based in vengeance and hatred.
Carmilla, although it appears to be a run of the mill tale of vampiric vixens, is actually an enthralling wonderland ripe with blood and death. It may not be a story you would read to the kids before lights out, but it is a tale that will bring back images wrought from those fairy tale landscapes of far, far away. Curl up with this little sleeper if you like your creatures of the night with just a little dash of pixie dust and wolfsbane.