by Sheridan LeFanu
Can we blame the notorious repression of the Victorian age for giving vampires their aura of forbidden sensuality? By now, the association of vampires with violent sexuality is an expected trope of the horror genre, given a kick start thanks to the propensity of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula to prey on nubile young women. But surely, I thought, before researching classic horror stories for this month’s post, it took Anne Rice to bring gay vamps out of the closet. Then I met “Carmilla,” Irishman Sheridan LeFanu’s 1871 Victorian lesbian vampire.
To an extent unusual for his time, “LeFanu was concerned with penetrating the hidden recesses of the psyches of his characters and mapping out the strange areas where the sense of reality can manifest itself to cover equally what is perceived and not-perceived,” editor E.F. Bleiler writes in his introduction to Best Ghost Stories of J.S. LeFanu. “As a result, there is nothing in (Victorian) contemporary literature. . . comparable to the perverse eroticism of ‘Carmilla’". (Despite the volume’s title, its stories of the supernatural are not always about ghosts, leaving room for the vampire, Carmilla.)
The story begins with a framing device similar to that Emily Bronte had used earlier for her own story of obsessive love, Wuthering Heights. A narrator (nameless in the case of “Carmilla”) claims to have heard the story from a source which quotes the original narrator, Laura,daughter of an Englishman who served in the Austrian military and used a small inheritance to settle into a feudal castle.
“Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary,” Laura relates in her manuscript. “The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge, never raised in my time, and its moat. . . sailed over by many swans, and floating on its surface white fleets of water-lilies.”
It’s a lovely place, but so lonely that Laura, the only child of her widowed father, longs for companions her own age. She looks forward to an anticipated visit from the daughter of one of her father’s fellow officers, only to learn that the daughter has died suddenly, the victim, as the old general writes, of “a fiend who betrayed our . . . hospitality.”
While the general is pursuing those he believes responsible for his child’s death, a carriage dashes down the narrow road and wrecks in front of Laura’s castle. Laura and her father rush to the aid of the passengers, an apparent noblewoman and her injured daughter. The older woman declares that she is on an errand of life and death, and pleads with the rescuers to take her daughter into their care until she is able to return for her. Moved, perhaps by his daughter’s wish for companionship, the father offers his hospitality for the injured girl, Carmilla.
She and Laura are soon fast friends. But as Carmilla recovers physically, Laura falls victim to a debilitating illness. Its first symptom is a “sensation like two needles piercing the skin” as she sleeps, followed by horrible dreams. Soon the old general arrives, reporting that his daughter suffered from similar symptoms before her death, and that he has followed the trail of the killer to Laura’s door. With his arrival, Carmilla disappears and Laura faces the possibility that her dearest friend is far from innocent.
But is Carmilla solely to blame for Laura’s illness? Does she even have an independent existence, or is she, as Bleiler says of many of LeFanu’s characters, one of the “potentially evil mental fragments (that may assume) semi-independent existence," brought to life in a lonely young woman's imagination? Read the whole story, and decide for yourself. Although not available on Google Books, “Carmilla” is widely available from Amazon and other sources. If your local library doesn’t have it, talk to a librarian about an interlibrary loan.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics deviates from its previously announced schedule to look at another tale of the supernatural, “The Phantom Coach,” by LeFanu’s contemporary, Amelia Edwards.)