Carmilla di Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Written in 1872 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla is another of the big classics of vampire literature and the second tale we have chosen for our Lockdown with a Vampire challenge. As for the previous story, for this one too you’ll also find an article in Italian on the Bloody Reader blog.

Carmilla is part of a collection of ghost stories by Le Fanu, but it is definitely the most famous and the one that left the biggest mark of all the stories in the collection.

Plot

Carmilla: the cult classic that inspired Dracula by Sheridan Le Fanu
Carmilla: the cult classic that inspired Dracula by Sheridan Le Fanu
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Her mother entrusts the mysterious but captivating young woman named Carmilla to the care of Laura and her rich father who live in their ancient castle in Styria, surrounded by an enchanting if isolated landscape. Everyone in the castle is immediately charmed by Carmilla’s extraordinary beauty, but her unusual habits and her enigmatic behaviour will soon be reason for inquisitiveness and concern.

Meanwhile, in the surrounding village, an unknown sickness has been reaping victims: the terrified and superstitious inhabitants fear the return of the “upir”, a legendary vampire that was taled to haunt the area.

Review

Carmilla, as we already mentioned, is one of the classics that, together with Polidori‘s The Vampyre, helped shape the character of this creature and that ended up influencing the broader literature of following novels on the same subject. We still have a long way to go before Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1897), however, it is from now on that these creatures are defined in more detail and start resembling their modern and contemporary representations.

Carmilla, the female vampire

 

Carmilla is an example of female vampire. Just like Lord Ruthven, she possesses great charms, but in her specific case, that charm is reinforced by extraordinary beauty. Her appearance is praised several times by poor Laura almost with the same passion of a lover. The shape of her face and her dark hair with shades of golden ensnare whoever crosses her path. Carmilla displays a predilection for young women, usually of the same age as her. Or at least, the same age she seems to be. She bonds with them through a deep feeling of love that is, however, always destined to bring her unsuspecting victims to destruction.

[…] if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours.

In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die —

die, sweetly die — into mine.

Carmilla di Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Michael Fitzgerald (fl. 1871 – 1891) / Public domain

Once again, like Polidori’s vampire, Carmilla is not exclusively a nocturnal creature. Even though she is used to waking up well into the afternoon, she does have a life in the light of day. Moreover, she differs from Lord Ruthven in that her appearance is far from gaunt. Her movements are described as languid, but her cheeks possess a rich and brilliant complexion. She seems to also have a faint heartbeat and the suggestion of breath. However, Carmilla is capable of quickly transforming into a vicious and bloody creature when she feels she is in danger or simply mad with hunger.

This is also where the erotic aspect of the vampire comes into play. Between Laura and Carmilla, we can easily identify a bond that is almost Sapphic and carnal. It’s not just a kinship of souls, but a veritable seduction.

The dualism of the vampire’s nature

Carmilla often shines a spotlight on the huge contrast between the childlike, innocent, and delicate side of this creature and the demonic nature of its existence. Even though she appears weak and docile, she is capable of great supernatural strength. And the more innocent she seems, the crueller she ends up being.

In addition, she is fully aware of being a creature with gifts that transcend those of a normal human being and go beyond her social status. She fiercely despises the plebs, she’s annoyed with human displays of pain and doesn’t hesitate to express so with the same attitude of a spoiled girl who is used to getting all she wants and to always seeing her every desire being met.

 

How to get rid of a vampire

In this short story, we also find out another characteristic of vampires. Laura is not the beautiful vampire’s first victim, and the wake of victims Carmilla left behind made her a few enemies. Enemies who are already seeking revenge.

This is how we come to know about the various methods that can destroy these seemingly immortal creatures. Throughout the narration, wooden stakes with which to stab the heart are mentioned, along with beheading and the complete separation of the head from the body which, to be even more certain of the efficacy of the death, is then set on fire. This is the first time, at least so far on our path, that we come in contact with this methodology.

The character of Carmilla in modern times

Carmilla di Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
David Henry Friston, fl. 1850s to late 1880s / Public domain

As would be expected, Carmilla became a source of inspiration for many artists throughout the centuries and in many fields beyond literature.

In cinema, Carmilla was revisited by Dreyer in the 1932 film Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray and later by Frenchman Vadim with his Blood and Roses (1960).

In 2009, Claydon revisits the character in Lesbian Vampire Killers, still unreleased in Italy.

Another work worth mentioning is The Moth Diaries (2011) by Mary Harron, based on the novel of the same name by Rachel Klein but clearly and deeply inspired by the character of Carmilla.

If we dive into the world of Japanese manga, we can find other traces of her in Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing. Meanwhile, when it comes to videogames, she often shows up as a boss to be defeated in Castlevania.

Finally, she isn’t exempt from the musical landscape either: Italian gothic metal band Theatres Des Vampires dedicated a track to Carmilla in their Moonlight Waltz album, and so did Cradle of Filth in Dusk and Her Embrace with their song Carmilla’s Masque.

Kaya even goes as far as naming a single after her, namely Carmilla; and while we’re talking about Japanese music we can’t forget to mention Miss Carmilla by Lareine.

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