A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I had never read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella Carmilla. As it turns out, I started writing a short story featuring a couple of the Scarlet Order vampires set in the early 1890s. The story is set a few years before the publication of Dracula, but it occurred to me that characters in the story might be aware of Carmilla which was published in 1872. As such, I put the novella at the top of my reading list. Once I finished, I realized it would likely be a favorite of my vampire Marcella shown here in illustrations by Nick Johns and Steven C. Gilberts.
I found Carmilla to be an engaging short read. After a carriage overturns, the title character appears wounded and in need of recovery. She’s left in the care of a nobleman and his daughter, Laura, while Carmilla’s mother continues on urgent business that will last several months. Laura and Carmilla form an immediate close attachment, but Carmilla is somewhat of a strange character. She appears in Laura’s dreams. Carmilla often sleeps well past noon and she seems to have an almost romantic interest in Laura. In various reviews, I’ve seen much made of this relationship in that it arguably depicts one of the earliest Lesbian relationships in fiction. While I do find that interesting, it’s hard to call it a very progressive depiction since Laura finds the attraction repulsive and it seems to be one of Carmilla’s “evil” characteristics.
Of course, Carmilla turns out to be a vampire. We learn that she’s repeated her pattern of stalking young ladies over the years, taking aliases that are anagrams such as Mircalla and Millarca. It occurred to me that Marcella is a near-anagram of Carmilla and this would be one reason she’d find the story attractive. In the story I’m writing, Marcella wants to warn a human friend about the dangers of vampires without revealing herself to be a vampire. Carmilla turns out to be a good book for that objective, since it details the vampire’s strength and cunning. It also shows the lengths one must go to in order to destroy a vampire should that be necessary.
I found a couple of the vampire characteristics in Carmilla especially interesting, since they rarely appear in modern vampire fiction. First off, Carmilla seems to haunt one victim at a time, draining the victim slowly until they finally succumb to blood loss. In this sense, the vampire is almost like a ghost or a harmful spirit. Also in the novella, Carmilla seems to be able to transform into a large cat-like creature. Marcella would certainly find this interesting, since the Scarlet Order vampires are shapeshifters, but it’s a characteristic you don’t find in many modern vampire stories.
Carmilla may not be a book for a all modern vampire fans. At times, Le Fanu does ramble on and it’s unclear how characters such as Carmilla’s “mother” actually relate to her. I couldn’t decide whether or not the mother was a human thrall or another vampire. I wonder if Le Fanu had any ideas on the subject. Still, as a fan of vampire folklore and stories, I found it enjoyable and I know my vampire Marcella would be a fan, especially given a nice unsettling twist Le Fanu throws in at the end of the tale.
I’ll be sure to let you know if this story I’m working on gets accepted. Whether or not it does, I’m grateful it finally prompted me to read one of the classics of the field. IN the meantime, you can read more about Marcella in Vampires of the Scarlet Order.