Carmilla (Sheridan Le Fanu)

Posted: September 13, 2014 in fiction
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People have been telling stories about vampires for a long time. In the European forests of times past, parents told scary stories to keep their children close to home – there were legitimate dangers in the dark forest, but when you tell a small child about bears, he envisions them as slightly larger versions of squirrels, and accords them the same amount of fear. Friends also told scary stories to each other for entertainment. One of the creatures invented was the vampire, a reanimated corpse that subsists on human blood. Vampire stories come from all over the world, dating back to pre-Christian times, but our modern American vampire seems to have been born in eastern Europe in the early eighteenth century. Many of the conventions that we see as important now were invented in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so they’re really not as essential as they seem. The vital bit is that they survive by taking life from others.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla predates Dracula, so the vampire isn’t quite what we expect. Stoker does steal quite a bit from this much shorter story, though, so she’s not a total surprise.

The features, though a hundred and fifty years had passed since her funeral, were tinted with the warmth of life. Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men, one officially present, the other on the part of the promoter of the inquiry, attested the marvellous fact that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed. Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism.

At first, it seems like people are being set up for a scam: a fast carriage is upset, the vaguely injured girl is left with wealthy bystanders while the supposed mother jumps back into the quickly repaired carriage and dashes off on a mission of life and death. Really? Moms were willing to ditch their rich daughters with total strangers? This mother figure may have some hypnotic abilities; in one scenario, she meets a guy at a party and convinces him that they’re old friends; it makes the daughter-ditching a little less unbelievable (from her mark’s point of view), but it also makes me think she’s not quite normal.

There follow some classic story elements: children go missing from the woods, or are found dead. The young lady of the house contracts some mysterious wasting illness, to the great concern of her father and friends. The doctor discovers a puncture wound normally hidden by the high collars of the time, and someone calls in a vampire hunter/scholar. There’s a showdown at the crypt and order is restored.

Our characters live in classic Gothic isolation, a nice British family forced abroad because it’s so much cheaper to live in an Austrian castle than an English village. There’s a nameless father and daughter, and the two women hired to attend to the girl’s education. These four seem to have little interaction with the outside world. Then Carmilla gets dumped on them, and the daughter falls in love for the first time.

“How romantic you are, Carmilla,” I said. “Whenever you tell me your story, it will be made up chiefly of some one great romance.”

She kissed me silently.

“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

I started from her.

When viewed in the light of homosexuality, the whole vampire thing becomes much more frightening, to me. A girl gets visits in the night from a female guest, she becomes more and more like this other girl, so her father tracks the foreign element down and kills it. They live in a female-dominated environment, so the lesbian attraction makes perfect sense, but when it comes time to kill the monster, men seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s like patriarchy was waiting, just out of sight, lurking, and when the moment came for a woman to profess her love for another woman, the weight of authority jumped out from behind a tree and crushed her.

I’m reminded of the time I was riding a bus with some coworkers and they started talking about the love scene between Catherine de Neuve and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. I could hear the drool in their voices. I was really uncomfortable, not at the thought of lesbian sex, but at the way they were discussing it. I had seen that part of the film years earlier with less discomfort than I felt at hearing them talk about it. It was like something precious and sacred was being passed around, handled, profaned by vulgar nonbelievers – pearls before swine. Sexuality is something private; it belongs to the people involved. I do enjoy a good sex scene, but I think that what makes the difference for me is in identification. When I watch people on a screen having (or pretending to have) sex, I can identify with the men involved – I enjoy the sight of a body similar to mine, an example of what I’d like mine to be. I can also identify with the partners of men, though sometimes I get jealous if I have an overwhelming desire to be with the guy (Ewan MacGregor, for example). But in a lesbian love scene, there is no place for a man. We can never enter that narrative. When I hear men trying to, by becoming narrators or observers, it feels like a violation. I don’t want to be part of that.

Being written in 1872, there’s nothing prurient about Le Fanu’s narration; he points us in that direction without dragging us all the way there. The same is true of the violence at the end. Because the story is narrated by the girl, we don’t have to see the staking, beheading, and burning, a great relief to me. I don’t like seeing all that. Without quite meaning to, I always see myself in the victim’s place, imagining the sharp point penetrating my heart, the axe at my neck, my own limbs consumed in the fire. Not as much fun as it sounds, but after thirty-four years of repetition, not as horrific either.

Carmilla is a short book, and a good one, much better than Polidori’s wretched Vampyr. It’s important to people interested in the history of horror or representations of homosexuality. Carmilla herself is fairly sympathetic, if you can overlook that whole vampiric monster thing. But hey, Myrna Loy got her start playing vampiric monsters, and she went on to become Nora Charles, one of the most beloved female film characters from the 1930s. They can’t be all bad.

  1. I’ve got this one on my reading list. I’m actually about 15k into a novel about a gay English professor who specializes in the Gothic. He books a long holiday at this castle (now a tourist resort) and gets possessed by the ghost of the Gothic writer he came there to study. He falls in love with one of the castle caretakers and the ghost helps him make important discoveries about historical lesbianism! It made me think of you, obviously.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      The list of gay English teachers heavily invested in the Gothic is fairly short. When I was applying for doctorate programs, I checked. 🙂

      If Gothic-with-gay-protagonist interests you, also check Clive Barker’s Sacrament. It’s very well written.

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