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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My initial reason for wanting to pick up Carmilla is actually kind of shallow: it stars a lesbian vampire. Okay, there's a bit more to it than that five word clause allows for; I knew that it pre-dated Dracula by a few years so I wanted to know how the books differed in terms of vampire mythology as well as how a Victorian author would tackle same-sex attraction, considering the social norms of the time. It was an interesting read.

The story is narrated by Laura, a young girl living in an isolated castle in Styria with her father, nanny and governess. After a visit from a family friend and his niece is cancelled due to the premature death of the niece, Laura is desperate for the companionship of a girl her age. This wish is unexpectedly granted when a carriage overturns near the castle. The carriage contains a girl named Carmilla and her mother. The mother states that her journey is urgent, but she cannot take Carmilla any further due to the impact that it may have on her already fragile health; thus, it falls to Laura and her father to take in Carmilla. At first, things seem fine, but odd deaths start occurring in the area, and Carmilla may not be what she claims.
As a vampire story, it's a pretty standard plot. In this case, I'm willing to overlook that issue, seeing as this is one of the prototypical vampire stories that even Dracula takes influence from. From a plot point of view, I have very little to complain about. Considering how short this book actually is, it builds tension nicely and does manage to be rather spooky, despite the over-saturation that I've experienced with vampire lore in the media. I guess the one point that I have to nitpick about is the ending. Obviously, the vampire has to die for real, that's standard form for these early vampire stories; my only problem is that Carmilla's death is told to us second-hand. As a teenage girl in Victorian times, I'm not surprised that Laura wasn't directly involved with the death, but I feel it would have had more impact if she had actually been present for the death; so instead of her reading their written account of finding her coffin, etc, Carmilla had decided that she couldn't stand losing Laura as prey and making one last-ditch attack, during which she is killed. I admit, this is a fairly minor point though, and the ending is definitely fitting for what the story is.
The thing that interested me more about Carmilla was the little interesting interpretations that it made regarding vampire lore. First, there's the idea that a vampire must return to their coffin for a few hours every morning. Granted, that makes them more likely to get caught, but it's an interesting twist on the "vampires must rest in native soil when they do rest" rule. But what was probably my favourite aspect of the vampire lore in this was the point that the novel states about prey: vampires have to feed regularly, but they will often be obsessed with one particular victim, the signs of which can be confused for love and affection towards the victim, and will thus prolong the feeding process for them. I really like this idea, mainly because it explains the strange love affair that people seem to have with vampires; on paper, a reanimated corpse really shouldn't be that attractive, but if their interest in prey is interpreted from the outside as love, then I can understand the idea of "they just crave love and affection" that seems to have obsessed modern audiences. Unfortunately, this whole love as a front for bloodlust thing makes the lesbian overtones really awkward in retrospect. Carmilla only ever targets female victims in the story, even those victims who she just kills after a few days. That point plus the fact that at no point is she ever portrayed as regretful or sympathetic in her role as a vampire, makes it seem as though her lesbian overtones are as a direct result of her being an evil undead creature. That's just unfortunate. And it's a shame, as the romantic overtone that Laura's friendship with Carmilla is actually really well written and would be quite sweet if the context was different.

While possibly dated by the standards of the average reader, I would definitely recommend Carmilla to readers who are particular fans of classic vampires and want to read other fiction from Bram Stoker's contemporaries. It's definitely an enjoyable book, and well-written considering the length and the over-saturation that modern readers must deal with. 3.5/5

Next review: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Signing off,

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