Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – Carmilla (1872)
Le Fanu, despite the French sounding name, was an Irish writer, known for telling ghost stories, and Carmilla COULD technically be placed in the ghost story category. Before Hollywood got a hold of the vampire genre, according to author’s like Paul Barber (who wrote the excellent book, Vampires, Burial, and Death), the rules of vampirism were less defined. But, most vampire beliefs throughout Europe and the Middle East cut the monster as more of a nighttime shade or ghostly visitor than as a solid creature. The flashy vamps from Twilight wouldn’t even be recognizable as vampires before the 1900s. Folklore vamps were not glamorous, not even physical, necessarily. A person would die, probably from tuberculosis or some other wasting disease, and then their family members would see the person, at night, in their rooms, and feel a pressure on their chest, and then become sick themselves. Someone would then suspect that the illness was caused by a vampire, open the coffin of the recently deceased, see the natural signs of decomposition (a ruddy complexion, sometimes blood on the lips or on the floor of the coffin, etc.), but not KNOW that these are the natural signs of decomposition, and perform a gruesome ritual on the corpse, in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. It wasn’t particularly effective, but the stories stuck.
Anyway, so Carmilla was published over two decades before Dracula, but was already a fully formed, Hollywood-ready, vampire story. (In fact, the story HAS been filmed at least half a dozen times, and inspired a couple of really great Hammer films, including the absolute classic, The Vampire Lovers (1970) with Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla.) Le Fanu’s story has a subdued lesbian element to it (played up in the Hammer versions, of course), has a vampiric transformation into a cat-like monster when the vamp is attacking, has a “discovering the coffin” scene, and even a knowledgeable old doctor who knows what’s causing the young woman’s illness---the dreaded oupire! It’s a story that anyone who has watched a vampire movie in the last hundred years will instantly recognize, but with that said, Le Fanu is an excellent writer and his pacing and stylistic details make this a very enjoyable read. It’s quick, it’s not boring, and it’s got some fun, suspenseful moments in it.
One interesting bit, which makes this story a bit different from our modern Western vampire tales, is the inclusion of a rationale for how the vampire in the story came to be. For readers of Anne Rice or of novels like Salem’s Lot, we know that vampires are caused by someone being bitten by another vampire, dying, and then being reanimated as a blood drinker. In Carmilla, there’s really no indication that people who die from the vampire’s attack come back as vamps themselves. Instead, it is suggested that the original vampire was created when a woman, through rather tragic circumstances, committed suicide. Her unholy death corrupted her soul and changed her into a creature of darkness. It’s an interesting take on the vampire legend.
Overall, I’d say this book would be appreciated by people who like non-sparkly vampires, who appreciate a good, gothic setting and Victorian pacing, or who are just interested in the historical development of the vampire story. The descriptions of the transformed Carmilla attacking the young heroine for the first time are quite good, and the details of the “opening the coffin” scene are perfectly gruesome, and seem right out of a Hammer classic. Le Fanu, as I mentioned, is a spectacular writer, and he knows how to create mood and atmosphere. Despite the story being nearly 150 years old, it definitely still holds up!
---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)
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