Saturday, July 21, 2012


Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Brief Description:
A young woman describes the horrifying events that occur during the unplanned sojourn at her home of another young woman who is as mysterious as she is beautiful.

POSSIBLY UNNECESSARY SPOILER ALERT:  This is a vampire story that predates Dracula by about twenty-five years. 

My Reaction:
I haven't read Dracula since... high school? I'm probably ill-prepared to compare the two, but it seems impossible not to do so.  If I'd read Carmilla first, I might have liked it even more-- and it was still good-- but I think I preferred Dracula.  Maybe it comes down to sheer length; Carmilla is a novella, while Dracula benefits from more pages in which to spin the tale.

That aside, how was the book in itself?  Good classic horror-- but I found the effect blunted.  To those who read it when the story was new-- or to someone miraculously unfamiliar with vampire lore-- it must be more startling than it was to me.  There were a few creepy moments (that I suppose I shouldn't reveal in this review), but even most of those felt weak-- or at least, they could have been presented more powerfully, with more vivid description... or more detailed emotional response from the witnesses... or something.  It felt a bit flatter than I'd hoped.  Still, all in all, well worth a read for anyone interested in classic horror-- particularly that pertaining to vampires.

Random Observations:

--  I wasn't sure whether Styria was a real place, so I looked it up.  Apparently it's part of Austria. Funny that it's described as a "lonely and primitive place".  I don't know; maybe parts of Austria were "primitive" when this was written/set...

--  Le Fanu seems to have some "had I but known" tendencies.  Direct quote: "Heavens!  If I had but known all!"

--  Perhaps the most startling aspect of the book was the lesbian innuendo.  I know that female friendships at that time could be more passionate and clinging than is the norm, today, but this goes beyond that.  I mean, there are kisses from "hot lips", panting breaths, and the like-- but never anything more explicit than that.  Considering how surprising that was for me, I can only imagine how scandalous it must've been for Le Fanu's contemporary readers.  Did people have to read the book in private for fear of what the neighbors would think?  ;o)

--  The vampire in this book is presented-- interestingly-- as an intelligent "con man".  I would say that I find it difficult to reconcile that intelligence with what is otherwise presented as a remorseless, bloodthirsty monster, except for the fact that real-life monsters are sometimes quick-witted and excellent mimics of normalcy.

--  The word "vampire" doesn't show up until 82% into the novella, though "oupire" is used at least a couple times before that.  

--  According to the vampire mythology of this book, "a suicide, under certain circumstances, becomes a vampire" that then creates more vampires of the people it kills.  That's the first I've heard of any connection between vampires and suicide.  It struck me as odd. 

SPOILERy Comments:

--  I don't know if the hilarity was intentional or not, but I found it quite amusing when the traveling entertainer noticed Carmilla's fangs and offered to file them down for her.  HA!

--  Very interesting that Carmilla is so vehement that all can be explained by "nature" / science rather than a Creator, religion or spirits.  I'm used to the idea that vampires are repelled by crosses and other Christian symbols-- but the insistence on "nature" was new to me. 

--  Laura is really extraordinarily dimwitted at times.  I know that Le Fanu tries to explain it away with all that stuff about how isolated the schloss was and how little Laura had been able to mix with society-- so naive, so innocent, so young-- but still!  When someone says this to you:  "You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me, and hating me through death and after."  ...Well, maybe it's time to become a bit concerned about the person's sanity and intentions toward you.

--  Related to the above:  After the scene at the ancient estate-- after the General tries to kill Carmilla-- when it should be obvious to everyone that Carmilla is the same monster that caused the death of the General's niece-- Laura is still "dismayed" when she returns home to discover "that there were no tidings of Carmilla".  ...Sorry, Laura; you may be a nice person, but you're not that bright.

--  So here we get the idea that (some) vampires must follow special "rules"-- such as the one that they can only go by anagrams of their true names.  Mircalla becomes Carmilla or Millarca.  That seems a bit silly to me, honestly, but then again, why should it seem any sillier than much else in vampire mythology?   Incidentally, I recently saw a movie in which Dracula went by "Alucard"-- and thought that was pretty ridiculous, too.

--  I would have liked some explanation of Carmilla's "mother" and her servants.