SHORT STORY: Carmilla
AUTHOR: Sheridan Le Fanu
This short story penned during the Victorian era by Sheridan Le Fanu is sort of a prelude to all other vampire based stories that are written after it, especially the novel ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker. The story uses many themes of vampirism which were new during the time when it was written which eventually makes the narrative a novel piece of literature at the time when it was published. Needless to say that ‘Carmilla’ is a Gothic horror story; the author has used many Gothic elements in his narrative like ancient castles, ruined chapels etc. The story itself is captivating & remarkable. The lucid descriptions in first person are quite conventional as well as the dialogues which are remarkable for a person living in the latter half of the 19th century. Sheridan Le Fanu surely has produced one of the legendary masterpieces of Vampire fiction. It seems a pity that many readers are unaware of this work of art by Le Fanu, the master of gothic horror.
The story is female centric where both of the main characters in the story are young ladies, one whose name is Laura who is narrating her experience in first person & the other whose name is Carmilla who happens to be a vampire.
The character of Carmilla itself is sort of a mystery & the author has used his literary powers to keep it that way. He reveals nothing about her which adds a lot to the suspense in the narrative. It is not to be misunderstood however that Carmilla has no personality at all…….she certainly does have one which intrigues & shocks the reader as well. She is a vampire who looks like she is only 20 years old. She is sensual like most vampires are but gets emotionally attached to only a few of her victims. She is diabolical but she does not seem so at all & can be a wonderful conversationalist. She indulges in harmless gossip but has certain eccentricities that shock the rustic people with whom she associates with…..in turn to plague them. As a historical character in this work of fiction, Carmilla the seductive vampire is actually the Countess of Karnstein whose real name is Mircalla. She was the victim of a vampire in her life & thus turned into one herself, endangering all who lived in the area. She speaks very little of herself to Laura who she grows emotionally attached to & the eager young girl Laura can simply only gain a few hints from Carmilla:
‘What she did tell me amounted, in my unconscionable estimation—to nothing.
It was all summed up in three very vague disclosures:
First—her name was Carmilla.
Second—her family was very ancient and noble.
Third—her home lay in the direction of the west.
She would not tell me the name of her family, nor their armorial bearings, nor the name of their estate, nor even that of the country they lived in.’
However towards the end of the text, we realize who Carmilla really is but it simply adds to the horror & mystery behind this strange woman created by Le Fanu. Indeed, the less we know of Carmilla, the more she seems to grow upon the mind of the reader.
Taking a cue from Le Fanu’s Irish descent, we can also suppose that Carmilla was some sort of a banshee (a female spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld) who not only heralded the death but also was the cause of the death of the members of her family as well as of the people she associated with. Le Fanu however took one step further & turned Carmilla into a horrid but graceful killer.
Being written during the Victorian age, it is obvious to the reader that the author has tried to curb the extent to which he describes Carmilla’s sensuality. However, all readers are well aware that vampires are definitely sensual creatures & seduce their victims to perfection. In this short story, there are many hidden undertones of Lesbian love which if brought out in the open would have greatly shocked the reader of its day. The author has taken precautions to dilute his vampire’s seductive nature to a great degree yet in some cases, the obvious train of thought that is wished to be produced by the author is quite visible:
‘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 over-powering; 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, you and I are one for ever.” Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.’
Carmilla shows great affection towards the young & vulnerable Laura who finds her new friend’s embraces & kisses rather disturbing. Laura is at once appalled & disgusted by Carmilla’s advances but at the same time, also feels the same sort of ecstasy that her companion feels. Le Fanu brings also to the focus the great fear on the part of many people of his day & age about homosexual relationships. Carmilla seems however only to plague female victims. She kills many in a few days’ time, but serenades the ones who she falls in love with like Laura:
‘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.’
Although Laura tries to make some sense out her friend’s passionate actions, she ultimately is drained of most of her blood by Carmilla in the form of a giant black cat during the night. It is only with timely action by certain individuals in the story like General Spielsdorf, Laura’s father & Baron Vordenburg that Laura is saved from a fate worse than death.
Although Carmilla’s remains are burned & thrown into the waters of a nearby flowing river, Laura even nine to ten years after her last meeting with Carmilla seems to still be haunted by her. This psychological aspect to the narrative adds a vague tinge of terror towards the end of the text.
For an ardent reader of the Gothic horror literature, Le Fanu’s story immediately brings to mind a lot of scenes & incidences from the classic horror novel ‘Dracula’. Many themes & ideas from ‘Carmilla’ seem to have influenced the writer of ‘Dracula’. For instance both works are set in first person intending the reader to come to a logical conclusion about events that follow in both narratives. In both the stories the main vampire is able to either transform into a gigantic hound (Dracula) or a gigantic black cat (Carmilla). Both stories end in the ultimate defeat of the vampire by persons who delve into folklore like Van Helsing (Dracula) & Baron Vordenburg (Carmilla). There are other many such instances to prove that the author of ‘Dracula’ was definitely influenced by Le Fanu’s work.
Rapt in bold intense love scenes, Carmilla the female vampire seems to surpass her successors in evil & even in pathos. One simply at times finds Carmilla to be but a pathetic piece of fine feminine grace who is more a victim than her own blood drained young victims. Her sleep walking at nights & languid disposition adds to our thinking that Carmilla is but a sad woman in need of love.