Book Reviews, Romance Novels

Carmilla by J. Sheridan LeFanu is Vampire Goodness

Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmillain The Dark Blue (January 1872)

Carmilla by J. Sheridan LeFanu

I’m always looking for texts with a proximity to Twilight that aren’t Twilight. It is why I have a long standing obsession with Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and rushed to the theater to gush over Kristen Stewart’s performance in Spencer (newsflash, she has always been talented, including in her Bella Swan days).

I just think that girl vampire books are magic. I seriously can’t get enough of them. And in the early history of vampiric women is the novella Carmilla.

Carmilla is a gothic horror story first published in 1872, written by Irish author J. Sheridan LeFanu. LeFanu is a Dublin-born writer of great gothic horror and ghost stories. He is credited with being one of the first writers to depict a female vampire. And the story was written about a quarter of a century before Dracula.

Listen, take this from a girl who feels more qualified to give vampire opinions than she probably should feel — Carmilla eclipses Dracula. This story gives all the vampiric goodness in a way shorter story. It has interesting characters and a way different portrayal of female agency.

In Carmilla, a mysterious carriage accident out front of the home of young Laura leads to her family taking a mysterious girl into their home in Austria. Laura and the girl recognize one another from past dreams. As time progresses, Laura has curious encounters with the young woman known as Carmilla that change her life and perspective forever.

Carmilla has women and a non-homophobic queer narrative between two women. Bare minimum, I know. But I want to reiterate how interesting it is that a story like this was written in 1800s Ireland.

The mystery of the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is the core of the story. It is not immediately known that Carmilla is a vampire, but it is not exactly a spoiler, either, given that this novella came out in 1872 and the title literally tells you who the most important character will be. Besides that, there is vampire drama and beautiful writing. Laura sees Carmilla in a way that the vampire hunting men cannot.

Reader, you will spend this entire book hoping praying for Laura to gain some logic and reasoning skills. Okay, so perhaps assuming the woman you’re seeing is a vampire isn’t a usual initial presumption, but Carmilla does not do a good job at hiding what she is. Laura’s slow-burn deduction skills are what change this from a short story to a novella.

Perhaps the story is warning about the mysteries and dangers of female sexuality. LFanu invites us to understand that there is something “different” about Carmilla, which can easily be read as her being vampire. But there’s something much more fascinating here, which is how Carmilla is a mythological outsider but also a societal outsider because of her queerness and power.

Her power lies in not being under the control of any man. Carmilla shares this power with Laura and the men see it as “sickness”. In reality, Laura and Carmilla enter a sexual relationship, and the further this progresses, the further Laura gets from the control of men.

Yes, Carmilla is a vampire. But she’s not a constant bloodsucking, coffin sleeping vampire. Her real mystery for readers lies in the fact that she is sexually pursuing Laura, and is known to only pursue women. Ohhh, scary…. women! Ok, LeFanu. Sure.

I am serious when I say Carmilla is meant to be scary. Her “scare” factor is linked to her sexuality. Carmilla living freely as a vampire is a way that she escapes patriarchal pressures. She is entirely free from male control in her vampiric form, and what does she do? She pursues women sexually.

Carmilla— is she good? Is she evil? Doesn’t matter to me. I am obsessed with her. She’s mysterious, attractive, and dare I say manipulative.

No, Carmilla isn’t the flawless, forward thinking queer vampire text of 2022. But I think it raises some interesting ideas for the history of women, particularly queer women, within the genres of gothic horror and fiction. Carmilla plays a big part of defining what we know as a vampire today. The character raises questions about the way that patriarchy interacts with female desire and sexuality.

And the beauty of this public domain story is that it lives on for new generations of people to interpret. Perhaps what was radical and scary about Carmilla in 1872 is merely commonplace to us now, but new creatives are putting their own spin on it (my mind goes immediately to the Carmilla web series on YouTube). For vampire and gothic horror lovers, Carmilla is an essential text.

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