REVIEW: Carmilla (1872)

A Book by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

When one has read an amazing story only to discover that it is incomplete, it can be frustrating. I can only imagine that is what happened with J. Sheridan Le Fanu, as he obviously read a copy of Christabel and imagined “what if?” What if we found out what the monster actually was? what if the story had a conclusion? Much like when Polidori read Lord Byron’s Fragment and created The Vampyre (which in itself is obviously not wholly constructed), Carmilla is the conclusion of years of people almost writing a full vampire novel finally coming to completion.

“When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.”

This book is remarkable in that one can tell it definitely inspired Dracula by Bram Stoker, but was out some 20 years prior. There are a number of things in Dracula that were completely lifted from the story, some that Stoker later removed such as his story originally taking place in Styria as well. It’s funny that the Stoker estate later went on to sue the producers of Nosferatu for lifting ideas for their movie, when he himself seems to have done the same with Carmilla to a degree! While there are earlier Vampire stories out there, I feel that Carmilla is the first to almost codify what we see as “a vampire” in modern popular culture. You can see a lot of the much older ideas that harken back to folklore of Revenants – The monster sleeping in their grave, absorbing life force, almost seeming to be more of a ghost in many ways, with their physical body weak to attack.

You also see the first instances of the sexual side of a vampire in Carmilla, as she uses her immense beauty to seduce Laura, as she does with other young heiresses, to slowly leach all of her life away. Prior to this, “Vampires” were seen as grotesque monsters that shambled from their graves to leech life from others. I this story, we have all of the tropes present – vampires being aristocrats, vampires being wealthy, and vampires being gorgeous. It’s amazing that a book with blatant themes involving lesbianism was released in the nineteenth century – I’m sure this caused an immense scandal the mere second The Church knew about it.

Some people think the mystery behind Carmella and her true nature is far too easy to spot, but please consider the age of this tale. In 1872, perhaps most people would not realize a series of anagrams foreshadowing the name of various maidens through time, is the same person preying on anyone they come across. It’s easy to look at this as derivative, but this is the prototype and should be respected as such!

I honestly really enjoyed this, out of all the aforementioned vampire stories that I was reading around Halloween, this is easily the best for many reasons. It’s exciting, its not pretentious, it’s not an epic poem, nor is it incomplete. For those that prefer “sexy” vampire stories such as HBO’s True Blood or Anne Rice novels should look into Carmilla, as it’s the O.G. Sexy Vampire book. It’s influence can be seen everywhere, even in Japanese video games such as Castlevania, or animated films like Vampire Hunter D. What a shame that most are largely unaware of its existence!


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