‘…and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.’
Le Fanu’s novella was first published in the magazine The Dark Blue in 1872, and then in the collection In A Glass Darkly, where it was presented as one of a series of stories told to the occultist Dr Hesselius. I’ve not read enough of Le Fanu’s work to say if it is his masterpiece or not, but certainly it is one of the seminal texts of vampire fiction, a direct influence on Stoker’s Dracula and the inspiration for Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy of films, to briefly point out the tip of an iceberg.
For anyone who wants a summation of the plot, Wikipedia is ready to oblige, as ever, and you can download a copy of the novella at Project Gutenberg though personally I recommend snapping up a copy of the Wordsworth Editions paperback of In a Glass Darkly.
I must have read this novella at least half a dozen times, and I read it again last night. It’s a word perfect work of vampire fiction, one that both horrifies and fascinates, luring us in and making us wonder exactly why we enjoy this fiction so much.
Carmilla is the apotheosis of the femme fatale, an undeniably attractive and sexy (Le Fanu never uses the word but it’s obviously on his mind) young woman, desired by all who come into her orbit. But she is also a vampire, and it’s the polarity of her nature that gives the monster resonance for the reader, just as it does for intended victim Laura – ‘sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl, sometimes the writhing fiend’. She is the template for all future female vampires, as Dracula was for the male of the species, the archetype all those who come after will be compared to and defined by.
There is, of course, a homoerotic subtext to much of what happens – Carmilla preys primarily on young women – with vampirism as a metaphor for ‘forbidden love’ and Le Fanu using the story to touch on the Victorian fear of ‘sexual deviancy’, though that may be a modern interpretation and not fully in line with the author’s intentions. The most we can say with any certainty is that her sexuality appears to be one of the tools used by the vampire in ‘corrupting’ innocence and pursuing her goal, adding an extra ‘frisson’ for the reader, one no doubt felt even more keenly and possibly in a different way by those of Le Fanu’s time. Laura seems to share Queen Victoria’s disbelief as regards lesbianism – at one point she can only think that Carmilla’s gestures of ‘affection’ are either (a) signs of madness or (b) evidence of a male admirer passing himself off as female to pursue his suit. And yet she appears to respond, even as she tells us otherwise. In the parlance of modern pop psychology – she’s in denial, big time.
At the novella’s conclusion, Le Fanu puts forward different concepts of the vampire and its relationship to its victim. Most commonly it ‘goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast’. On rare occasions though, things become more personal and ‘it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship’. It’s a form of seduction, the rapist vampire who wants to be loved by its victim, and the opportunity for betrayal this affords seems to enrich the experience.
The aspect of the novella that always fascinates me the most is Carmilla’s entourage, the men who drive the black coach in which she arrives at the estate of her designated victim, the woman who pretends to be her mother. Human helpers, either knowing or otherwise, have been a common feature in vampire fiction, and objectively they would seem to be a necessary adjunct to the creature’s existence in our world, the vampire’s ‘beard’ if you will. But are those mentioned in Carmilla actually human? The men are described as ‘ugly, hang-dog looking fellows’, but that pales beside the description of a woman inside the coach, someone who does not take part in the negotiations – ‘a hideous black woman, with a sort of coloured turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.’
Nothing more is said of these people, no attempt made to explain or hunt them down. They depart from the plot as mysteriously and inexplicably as they entered it, black coach and all. And that intrigues me. There’s a story there, waiting for the right person to come along and write it.