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Carmilla Essay

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Before there was Count Dracula, there was Carmilla. Indeed, it was Sheridan Le Fanu who introduced the vampire into the English literature tradition. “Carmilla” was first presented to the world in serial form, published in four editions of a magazine called The Dark Blue between 1871 and 1872 The four sections were then presented as a full length novella (or very long short story) in a collection alongside other tales from Le Fanu published under the title In a Glass Darkly. “Carmilla” was the final entry in that collection which predated the publication Bram Stoker’s Dracula by quarter of a century.

The stake through the vampire's heart was introduced in Sheridan La Fanu's “Carmilla.” That is not on the only gothic tradition which is to be found in this vampire novel that diverges from the blazed trail primarily by virtue of having a female bloodsucker at the heart of its narrative of horror. The title character is a self-created victim of anagrammatic confusion; she presents her variously as Carmilla, Millarca and Mircalla inside the high isolated castle dominated inside by a large portrait of a dead former occupant. Add in a travel accident involving a carriage and nightmarish visions at night and Le Fanu givs the reader everything that should be expected from a vampire story of the highest order.

Victorian readers who picked up copies of The Dark Blue or In a Glass Darkly were treated to a bit more than expected, however. “Carmilla” does not just diverge from literary tradition by presenting a tale of the supernatural and occult from the perspective a female vampire, it also veered quite widely from the path of Jane Austen loved stories and Charles Dickens moral fables which dominated the best seller lists of the times. For the lady is not just a vampire, but a lesbian as well.

Indeed, “Carmilla” goes against the grain of proper Victorian literature by indulging in not just the gothic horror of vampirism, but by touching up on themes related to the darker borders of sadism and masochism on existing on the fringes of lesbian love in that castle high above and isolated far from the madding crowds in the time and space between John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

‘But dreams come through stone walls…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Although overshadowed by the later Dracula, Carmilla still stands out as one of the best of the gothic vampire stories. This book includes the story itself in its original form, together with an introduction and four critical essays that set out to analyse the text from a variety of perspectives.

Atmospheric and chilling, Carmilla has everything we could want – gothic ruins, beautiful victim, even more beautiful and extremely sexy vampire, midnight terrors and a climactic graveyard scene. Throw in some very Victorian-style lesbian eroticism and Le Fanu’s fine writing and it’s no surprise that Carmilla continues to be influential on writers and filmmakers even today. It’s been years since I read it last, as part of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, and I found I enjoyed it very much on re-reading.

However the main purpose of this book is to critically re-analyse Carmilla and (somewhat to my surprise) I found the critical essays at least as enjoyable, if not more so, than the story itself. Kathleen Costello-Sullivan’s introduction describes how the story’s psychological aspects, representations of gender and sexuality, and aesthetic and narrative characteristics have led to scholars returning again and again to re-assess the book over the years. She also justifies its inclusion in this Irish Studies series on the grounds that it is generally accepted that the story is drawing parallels with the political and cultural life of Le Fanu’s Ireland.

The first essay is by Jarlath Killeen, who takes this Irish aspect of the story and argues that the picture Le Fanu gives us of Laura and her father as English people clinging to their Englishness while living abroad is representative of Le Fanu’s own position as an Anglo-Irish protestant at a time when the Church was being disestablished and Home Rule was a major topic. So far, so convincing. However, I found Killeen’s positioning of Carmilla within this Irish-ing of the story less convincing. He seems on the one hand to be arguing against a Catholic Carmilla (based on her disgust at the Catholic forms followed by the villagers) and then claiming her as a metaphor for the Catholic aristocracy on grounds that I felt were either shaky or not well enough explained.

In the second essay, Renee Fox suggests that the mutual attraction between Laura and Carmilla prevents a simple reading of Carmilla as a Catholic metaphor rising to crush the Laura-as-Protestant metaphor. In fact, she sets out to show the ‘indistinguishability’ of victim and vampire, the blurring of which is predator and which is prey. ‘The attraction and affinity between Laura and Carmilla functions not to demonize the Catholic Irish, but to express an ‘atrocious’ cycle of political vampirism in which Protestants and Catholics make monsters of each other, reproduce each other’s aggression, and ultimately become indistinguishable from one another.’ From a rather tetchy beginning in which Fox ticks off previous academics somewhat testily, this turned out to be a particularly interesting and well-argued analysis providing much food for thought.

Next up is Lisabeth C Buchelt who examines the ‘aesthetic’ positioning of the book. A subject about which I knew nothing, I found Buchelt’s arguments clear and easy to absorb. She argues that the story ‘forges a connection between popular ideas about the picturesque and what constitutes the vampiric’ and that Le Fanu uses the ‘popular literary trope of medievalism’ in constructing a ‘vampire aesthetic’. My initial reaction to that was to gulp a bit – quite a bit, in fact. However, she then goes on to explain this in a way that meant I not only understood it but was convinced by her argument. An interesting and informative essay.

Lastly, Nancy M West takes us on a run through of the films that have been either adapted from or influenced by Carmilla, with a look at how the lesbianism in the story has been dealt with over the years as social mores and, perhaps more importantly, censorship rules have changed. Lighter than the other essays, this was an enjoyable finish to the book.

In conclusion, if you are interested in the story but not the criticism, then much better to get this as part of In a Glass Darkly. However, I found the criticisms very interesting, much more than I anticipated to be honest, and for me they have enhanced the story without destroying any of its original impact. I therefore heartily recommend this book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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