Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
You do not know how dear you are to me, or you could not think any confidence too great to look for. But I am under vows, no nun half so awfully, and I dare not tell my story yet, even toyou. The time is very near when you shall know everything. You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish.How jealous I am you cannot know. 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. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature.”
-Carmilla Karnstien (1)
Carmilla, from the masterpiece of the same name, along with her blood sucking brethren Varney and Dracula are what brought vampires to the attention of Victorian readers. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this female vampire is more than likely the results of the author’s strife filled life. Today the mother of Victorian vampires, has filtered down to become a foil for superheroes (she is Dracula’s true love in The Batman versus Dracula, which is ironic considering she was a notorious lesbian.)(2), a non-playable character in video games, the anti-hero in Ingrid Pitt Movies (3) and portrayed by Meg Tilly on television (4). The novella was written in 1872 by J. Sheridan La Fanu, the son of an Irish chaplain, and was published a full twenty five years before Dracula, it gives us excellent pre-Stoker look at the world of Victorian undead.
Before we venture too much into the evolution of vampires, Carmilla’s sexuality must be addressed. It can arguably be stated that if not for the almost vague sexual elements of the story that it would have disappeared into obscurity like the rest of La Fenu’s work, (beside Uncle Silas, which has gotten the occasional movie treatment). It can safely be said that this work codified the lesbian vampire trope. (5) Though the book seems tame by today’s standards, to the moral standards of the Victorian middle class the analogy is crystal clear. From their perspective this forbidden attraction was meant to be symbolic for an unholy thirst from beyond the grave.
It has been said that “Camilla’s attention towards the young narrator of the story, Lara, is as much romantic as it as predatory.”(6) All though there is surely some affection on the vampire’s behalf for the female protagonist, La Fanu never fully addresses weather this is love, lust or a deep rooted desire for blood. I would equate Carmilla with a farm girl who named, raised and fell in love with a lamb, all the time conscious that her pet would eventually become Easter dinner.
The difference between a great horror story and splatter punk is, that in the greatest works of horror there is something horrific beyond the story’s words. Some concept that lingers and gnaws at the reader’s mind and soul, long after the book is closed. This is seen in the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft where the anti-moral, is that man is alone and helpless in an uncaring universe(6) or in Max Brooks World War Z, which on the surface is a rollicking romp through a zombie infected world, but is also a warning that technology cannot save us from a natural disaster.
The meta-horror in Carmilla is that in the Victorian world the white man was on the top of the social food chain, but here comes Carmilla who has no need for him in anyway. She doesn’t need him as a lover. She gains satisfaction through other women and she can reproduce without him. She doesn’t need a husband to provide for her, she is self-sufficient in every way. She can also steal away his daughters and turn them into something dark like unto herself. Victorian gentlemen aren’t even desirable to her as a bloody snack; in essence she has rendered them completely unnecessary.
That literary vampires have changed throughout the years is self-evident, From Stoker’s Eastern European menace, to the rat face count Orloff, to Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the Count, to Blacula, to Lestat de Lioncort, to the punk rockers of the Lost Boys, to Angel, and Spike to the angsty sparkly teen vampires of today. In theory a vampire before Stoker made vampire’s a household word should be closer to the original tradition than the others.
Carmilla is more ghostly or at least more spirit-like than we see in the vampires of today. She obviously has a corporeal form because she touches the narrator’s hand and kisses her cheek, but she takes on an intangible form during her more vampiric activities. She can walk through walls and seems to be able to somehow astraly project herself.
A family member of a victim before Laura described her repeated attacks as “…Lastly came sensations. One, not unpleasant, but very peculiar, she said, resembled the flow of an icy stream against her breast. At a later time, she felt something like a pair of large needles pierce her, a little below the throat, with a very sharp pain.”(7)This description could come from the fact that La Fanu wanted to describe the vampire as a mysterious intangible force. Other motives may have been an attempt to keep Carmilla’s undead traits secret until the shocking reveal at the end. Or it might have been that he wished to tantalize the reader rather than portray the vampires attack on a young woman in graphic psycho-sexual gory that The Hammer films gleefully exploited.
Another way that Carmilla differs from her undead descendants is that of how she became a vampire. In modern fiction the presumed way to become a vampire is to be bitten by one. La Fanu used the old legend that vampirism is the result and curse from suicide.(8) When she was human Carmilla attempted to get attention from her family that she felt ignored her by trying to kill herself. Unfortunately the attempt went too far and she was cursed to come back and feed of the blood of the living. This was actually a pretty common belief of the cause of vampires prior to Dracula. (9)
The animal that modern vampires are most associated with is, of course, the bat, though it was stated that Dracula could turn into a dog. Carmilla’s animal guise was that of a large cat. Looking much like a North American Puma it is in this form that she travels the countryside looking for victims.
Carmilla also differs from later vampires in the fact that she can be outside in the sun. She is best described as nocturnal. She is weak and languid during the daytime, and her skin reacts badly to the sunlight, but she does not explode into flames when being exposed to daylight.
I have two theories about Carmilla that I have not seen elsewhere in my research on the subject. In 1858 La Fanu’s wife had what was probably a nervous breakdown that lead to her declining health and eventually lead to her death.(10) In an attempt to make sense of a world that seemed to be closing in on her, she attempted to obtain solace in the doctrine of Church of Ireland, her more and more fanatical beliefs lead La Fanu to embrace atheism. It seems to me that Carmilla’s strange sometimes irrational behavior and her hatred of God may have its genesis in this period of the writer’s life. We have definitely seen writers like Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft and Jules Vern take inspiration from real life tragedy and it is not much of leap of faith to assume that La Fanu may have done the same.
The second (Spoiler alert) is that the story is told in the form of a written account by the narrator Laura and given to La Fanu’s recurring character, the occult detective, Dr. Hesselius.The editor (who I would like to presume is La Fanu) regrets that since the Laura is dead he cannot obtain more information on the account. Her family claims to have killed Carmilla in a very graphic way, and then has a priest perform rituals to prevent her from ever rising again. But despite her family assertion of Carmilla’s grizzly end, the story ends with this ominous note. “…It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations–sometimes the playful, languid,beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.”(11)
From the moment I put the book down I have speculated Laura’s family lied about destroying Carmilla, or that the vampire was too strong to be destroyed, and had returned and taken the object of her affection. Another possible theory was that the Carmilla’s previous victim, the daughter of General Spielsdorf, rose from the dead and took what her sire could not.
Whether or not Carmilla rose again in the Gothic world in which she lived, it undeniable that her presence lives on in today’s modern vampire yarns.
(1) Carmilla on The Gutenberg Project http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10007/10007-
h/10007-h.htm, Pg 28
(2) The Batman versus Dracula (2005) Michael Gogun, Warner Brothers Animation.
(3) The Vampire Lovers (1970) Roy Ward Baker, Hammer Film Production.
(4) Night Mare classics: Carmilla, (1989) Gabrielle Beaumont
(6) GURPS: Blood Types, Steve Jackson Games, 1995, USA