The vampire before Dracula
Today I am writing to you about one of the classic vampire stories, Carmilla.
This novella was written by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1872, a full 25 years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, and follows the relationship between two young women.
The story is presented in a framing device, being a book by Dr Hesselius. The stories protagonist, Laura, describes her childhood in Styria, which is notably picturesque. Laura explains that when she was six, she had a vision of a beautiful visitor to her bedchamber, who she then describes as biting her, although no injury was ever found.
We then jumped to twelve years later, Laura and her father are discussing General Spieldorf, whose young niece Bertha has recently passed away under mysterious circumstances. A carriage accident outside Laura’s home brings a girl of Laura’s age named Carmilla under her families care and Laura immediately realises this is the girl she dreamt of when she was six.
Camilla and Laura grow to be close friends despite Carmilla’s odd behaviour such as, her sudden mood changes, her romantic advances towards Laura, her very secretive nature, the fact that she never joins in household prayers, and lastly, her habit of sleeping during most of the day and wandering at night. It is also noted around this time that young women and girls in close vicinity to the castle have been dying from an unknown malady. During one such funeral procession Carmilla spirals into a rage due to the hymns being sung.
Laura then finds old paintings one of which being a portrait of her ancestor who resembles Carmilla exactly.
Laura starts having nightmares of a very large cat-like beast entering her room and attacking her during the night before turning into a woman and disappearing through the door without opening it. She also has nightmares involving Camilla standing at the foot of her bed drenched in blood. Naturally Laura’s health starts to decline, and the doctor called seems to recognise what is happening and asks that Laura never be left alone.
Laura and her father then take a carriage ride together where they encounter General Spieldorf. The General joins them and tells his story in which his niece met a beautiful young woman who she was very taken with and who stayed with them for three weeks. During this time his niece fell mysteriously ill, suffering the same symptoms as Laura. Again, the family knew what was happening and laid in wait until a large black creature attacked. When the General tried to fight it, the creature took the form of the mysterious young lady who fled through a locked door unharmed. Unfortunately, the General’s niece died.
The General now travelling with Laura and her father tries to search out the tomb of Carmilla’s supposed ancestor. Though it turns out that the tomb was relocated. Carmilla then appears before Laura and the General, the General recognises her as the girl who killed his niece and attacks with an axe. Carmilla manages to flee.
The group is then joined by a descendant of an ancient vampire hunter who knows the relocated tomb. They are able to exhume Carmilla’s body which is immersed in blood and breathing faintly. They drive a stake through her heart and burn her.
Laura never fully recovers from her trauma.
For a novella there is a lot happening in this story. There is a wide cast of characters most of which feel necessary to the story, though the last-minute addition of a vampire hunter does feel a little tacked on, at least to me. I feel the story would have worked without the addition; however, the addition of this character doesn’t really hurt the story.
It’s impossible to discuss this story without mentioning the sexual overtones, which not only show female sexuality but also homosexuality. Carmilla is shown as being attracted to Laura and Laura is very drawn to Carmilla. It is however rather pleasing to see that the female sexuality and homosexual elements are not overtly portrayed as evil, given when this book was written. Making the monsters seductive in nature as well as disguising them as vulnerable adds a layer of mystery as well as horror.
I particularly enjoyed how, once Laura started being attacked, and showed symptoms, it was quickly realised what was happening, they did not drag this mystery element out or make the characters incredibly naïve. While it can work well to have the audience understand what’s going on while the characters do not, I certainly find this frustrating more often than not, so was very pleased that this was not dragged out.
The atmosphere portrayed throughout the book is that of classic horror, again though, due to when the book was written it’s hard for it not to be.
Overall while I thoroughly enjoyed this story, I must admit that the ending, in particular Carmilla’s demise, was somewhat unsatisfying. Carmilla’s return to her tomb felt slightly odd to me considering that prior to this she had been staying, and sleeping, away from it while visiting other people’s houses. The fact that the tomb was also ‘lost’ before conveniently having a character who knew where pop-up was felt a little jarring.
However, as I said above, I thoroughly enjoyed this story and appreciate it for what it was and what it has done for the horror genre. It is interesting to think that without this story we might never have had Dracula.