If you know your classic vampires, then you know that their first major occurrence in English literature is The Vampyre, by John Polidori, which was conceived in that famous meeting of minds during the “Year Without a Summer” (1816), which produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Then there are the ‘penny dreadful’ series Varney the Vampire, in the 1840s, before Dracula finally arrives in 1897 and becomes the benchmark.
That classic was preempted, however, by a great, creepy novella called Carmilla, produced by the gothic ghost story author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Written in 1872, the story features a young female vampire whose only victims are young girls. A beautiful stranger named Carmilla drops mysteriously into the secluded household of a retired military officer, and begins to seduce his young daughter Laura, who is the narrator. The father and daughter live in Styria in an old castle in the woods, (as you do), which the father supposedly secured at a bargain, and which is not far from the ruins and tombs of a village once presided over by the noble Karnsteins.
Laura begins the story by describing an incident from her childhood that haunts her, in which a beautiful girl appeared to her in her nursery, and curled up with her in the bed. This self-same girl arrives twelve years later and becomes a house guest – a “very languid”, mysterious one who sleeps until late into the afternoon, eats little, and is prone to inappropriate outbursts of passion towards Laura. (The best one is a whispered, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I one forever”…!) Laura decides Carmilla must be a natural romantic, who is really pining for a secret lover, but Le Fanu goes into excellent detail about how Carmilla is strangely both attractive and repellent to Laura: “I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence.”
Le Fanu paints a vivid picture of Carmilla. She is obviously of noble birth, but will not reveal anything about her background; she is syrupy sweet, until a funeral procession passes with the mourners singing hymns, at which she becomes inexplicably infuriated. Her seductiveness is decidedly creepy, and just inappropriate enough to make you think how wild this must have been at the time (vampire and a lesbian, gasp!). It’s also interesting that instead of being burned by sunlight, this vampire is just really not a morning person, and is so sleepy during the day that she is exhausted by short walks in the woods. Le Fanu describes it as sort of a sexy laziness.
Carmilla’s allusion to the night she became a vampire is delightfully weird: “‘I was all but assassinated in my bed, wounded here,’ she touched her breast, ‘and never was the same since… a very – cruel love – strange love, that would have taken my life. Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood.'” There is one detail about the final image of her in her coffin, which I thought was surprisingly disturbing: Le Fanu says she is floating in seven inches of blood inside it.
As the story goes on, young women in nearby villages begin to waste away mysteriously, and it is discovered that Carmilla is not always in her room at night. Laura begins to have dreams in which she feels two sharp needles pierce her breast and glimpses Carmilla-shapes vanish and reappear about her room. Like Carmilla, she becomes sleepy and melancholy during the day. She describes the feeling as knowing something is wrong, but not really minding it, as it is kind of pleasant. Thankfully, along comes the neighbor General Spielsdorf, who has determined exactly how his niece has died and wants a good look at those Karnstein tombs.
It really is a great, lesser-known vampire story, with the perfect setting and a well-drawn title character. You can find it on its own or in collections such as Best Ghost Stories of J.S. Le Fanu, which I’m currently reading.
Image via Amazon