Before Bram Stoker made the love (or hate) for Vampires mainstream, a 100 page story by Sheridan Le Fanu written in 1872 laid the foundation for Dracula. Carmilla is a gripping gothic tale steeped in darkness, cold and death. It begins innocently enough and even then the sense of anticipation of something about to go wrong is palpable. The opening lines that describe the estate and its location set the tone for horrors that will unfold.
Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence in a forest. The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge, never raised in my time, and its moat, stocked with perch, and sailed over by many swans, and floating on its surface white fleets of water lilies.Over all this the schloss shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its Gothic chapel. The forest opens in an irregular and very picturesque glade before its gate, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood.
As a reader you are just settling into this remote deceptively beautiful place, when the narrator and heroine, Laura experiences an extraordinarily chilly encounter of the other kind. From that moment onwards there is a never a dull moment in the book.
The central theme of the book is the relationship between Laura and their surprise visitor, a beautiful young girl named Carmilla and how she changes Laura’s life. Laura, who leads an almost solitary existence with her father and governesses, is really excited to finally have a companion of her own age. The friendship is clearly homosexual, most definitely from Carmilla’s side. Laura, deprived of friends and besotted with Carmilla’s beauty, enjoys the affectionate gestures of her new friend but gets extremely comfortable with the wild expressions of passions. If there are any doubts to the nature of their relationship, lines like these will remove them.
Shy and strange was the look with which she [Carmilla] quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled. Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”
During Carmilla’s stay, strange happenings happen in the village and Laura’s health begins to decline. Now, because we know beforehand that it’s a story about vampires, as readers we are not so puzzled by the strange events. As Laura describes her strange experiences, the plot gives itself away.
Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river… Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself.
The rest of the story is basically the unraveling of the cause of Laura’s troubles and the truth about Carmilla and her past, which though predictable makes for quite horrific reading. It’s interesting to observe that beyond the supernatural elements and obvious gothic elements of the story (lonely castles, female victims, old family portraits, missing maternal influence) there is something to be said of the portrayal of women. So while Mr. Le Fanu takes the enterprise of writing the story in a female voice, he essentially sees the world from a male’s point of view. The female characters are either victims or devils, or as important as the furniture in the room. The saviors are all men, ofcourse. That brings me to the important point of why did Mr. Le Fanu chose to write a gothic tale about lesbian vampires, was he just giving in to the male fantasy of watching two women get it on?
Footnote: While reading Carmilla, I also found references to what would probably be the first inspiration for how ghosts are visually depicted in Korean movies. Read on and tell me if you don’t agree
The room was lighted by the candle that burnt there all through the night, and I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little at the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.