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J. Sheridan Le Fanu published "Carmilla" in 1872. The story of female vampire Carmilla (also known in the story as Millarca and Mircalla, the Countess Karnstein, all anagrams of "Carmilla") is a Gothic work, noted as one of the first stories of vampire fiction. "Carmilla" is a story of a female vampire that preys on young women (noted in "The Origins of the Queer Vampire"), causing an epidemic in a Styrian town and terror in a young woman’s bedroom.
Unlike other vampire tales, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, the title character is a female vampire, not a male.
The text of "Carmilla" opens with Laura, the narrator, seeing a strange woman in her nursery at the age of six. The "solemn, but very pretty face" was that of the title character, Carmilla, though the narrator did not know that at the time. Laura narrates, "She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling."
Yet, after falling asleep, Laura has the sensation of two needles in her breast, causing her to cry out. At this point the lady slips out of bed and escapes to underneath the same bed. When the maids of the household try to consul Laura, she tells the reader, "I knew the visit of the strange woman was not a dream; and I was awfully frightened."
The story forwards to when Laura is a teenager, and her father is expecting a visit from the General from the town over. The General plans to bring his niece, his ward, but she suddenly falls ill and dies. The General sends a letter saying that he must go after the monster that did this to his niece and will explain the details when he returns.
When Laura is out one night with her father, lamenting over not having a companion, she sees a carriage tumble over an overgrown tree root. Carmilla, the very same woman that Laura saw that night in her nursery, was in the carriage. Because Carmilla's mother is in a hurry to get to her destination, she places Carmilla in Laura's father's care, leaving hastily in the carriage. After Carmilla rests for a while, Laura is given leave to see her, and the two recognize each other from all those years before. It is in this chapter, entitled "We Compare Notes," that Laura and Carmilla form a sort of friendship.
With undertones (and at times overtones) of lesbian seduction, Carmilla interacts with Laura, growing closer to her even as Laura gets hints of Carmilla's vampirism. First, a travelling hunchback notes an abnormality that Carmilla has: "Your noble friend, the young lady at your right, has the sharpest tooth – long, thin, pointed, like an awl, like a needle." Then, when a picture-cleaner arrives, Laura notices the extreme likeness of Carmilla in the painting of a Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, that her father has in the drawing room.
Soon, Laura has a nightmare:
"I saw, or fancied I saw, the room and its furniture just as I had seen it last, except that it was very dark, and I saw something moving round the foot of the bed, which at first I could not accurately distinguish. But I soon saw that it was a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat. It appeared to me about four or five feet long for it measured fully the length of the hearthrug as it passed over it; and it continued to-ing and fro-ing with the lithe, sinister restlessness of a beast in a cage. . . . I felt it spring lightly on the bed. The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream. . . . 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."
After this nightmare, Laura's heath starts to decline. She continued to have the nightmares, and one night she sees Carmilla at the end of her bed stained in blood. Laura races to Carmilla's room after this episode, but Carmilla is not there. One o'clock the next afternoon Carmilla is back in her room, with no explanations as to why she had gone missing the night before.
Once Carmilla is back, Laura's father notices Laura's illness and orders a doctor. The doctor hears Laura's account of her nightmare and takes notes of the wound just below Laura's throat. The doctor talks to Laura's father, and in a sinister way Laura's father says, "If the right steps are taken, you will be quite well again, at least on the high road to a complete recovery, in a day or two."
That afternoon Laura and her father go for a picnic in Karnstein, a town of ruins. On their way, the father and daughter run into the General, heading to the same ruined town. He joins them in their carriage and starts to relay the story of his own niece and her illness and sudden death.
The General, Laura, and her father finally make it to Karnstein, and meet a woodman who then directs them to an old man that knows of the history of the town and its past inhabitants. The woodman notes that the village was "troubled by revenants," vampires. The General, whose niece he believed was killed by the vampire Mircalla (known to him as Millarca), wants to find her tomb to kill the vampire.
Carmilla arrives to the ruined village, but the General immediately recognizes her and goes to kill her. She escapes, and then disappears. Her disappearance ends the nightly terrors the Laura experienced. A few days later the old man that the woodman referred to, the Baron that the General knew, carried out the "formal proceedings" of killing Carmilla (Mircalla) in her tomb: "a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire . . . Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head was next placed on a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away."
The "Conclusion" chapter of this text details the traits of vampires, according to their existence in this story
Carmilla, the title character, is the original prototype for a legion of female and lesbian vampires . Though Le Fanu portrays his vampire's sexuality with the circumspection that one would expect for his time, it is evident that lesbian attraction is the main dynamic between Carmilla and the narrator of the story:
- "Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever"
- — Carmilla, Chapter 4
When compared to other literary vampires of the 19th century, Carmilla is a similar product of a culture with strict sexual mores and tangible religious fear. While Carmilla selected exclusively female victims, she only becomes emotionally involved with a few. Carmilla had nocturnal habits, but was not confined to the darkness. She had unearthly beauty, and was able to change her form and to pass through solid walls. Her animal alter ego was a monstrous black cat, not a large dog as in Dracula. She did, however, sleep in a coffin. Carmilla works as a Gothic horror story because her victims are portrayed as succumbing to a perverse and unholy temptation that has severe metaphysical consequences for them.
Some critics, among them William Veeder, suggest that Carmilla, notably in its outlandish use of narrative frames, was an important influence on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898).
Bram Stoker's Dracula
Although Carmilla is a lesser known and far shorter Gothic vampire story than the generally considered master work of that genre, Dracula, the latter is heavily influenced by Le Fanu's novella. Stoker's posthumously published short story "Dracula's Guest" (1914), known as the deleted first chapter to Dracula, shows a more obvious and intact debt to Carmilla:
- In the narrative, an Englishman finds himself in Germany midway upon his journey from England to the castle of Dracula; stumbles upon a tomb of a female vampire whose inscription reads: Countess Dolingen of Gratz / in Styria / sought and found death / 1801.
- Both stories are told in the first person. Dracula expands on the idea of a first person account by creating a series of journal entries and logs of different persons and creating a plausible background story for their having been compiled.
- Both authors indulge the air of mystery, though Stoker takes it further than Le Fanu by allowing the characters to solve the enigma of the vampire along with the reader.
- The descriptions of the title character in Carmilla and of Lucy in Dracula are similar, and have become archetypes for the appearance of the waif-like victims and seducers in vampire stories as being rosy-cheeked, slender, languid, and with large eyes, full lips, and soft voices. Additionally, both women sleepwalk.
- Stoker's Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is a direct parallel to Le Fanu's vampire expert Baron Vordenburg: both characters used to investigate and catalyse actions in opposition to the vampire, and symbolically represent knowledge of the unknown and stability of mind in the onslaught of chaos and death.
In popular culture
(Alphabetical by first author's surname)
- In the Japanese light novel series High School DxD, written by Ichiei Ishibumi and illustrated by Miyama-Zero, the vampires are depicted as having a society divided among two major factions: The Tepes and the Carmilla. The Carmilla faction favors a matriarchal society for the world of vampires while the Tepes prefer a patriarchal government.
- Carmilla: A Dark Fugue is a short book by David Brian. Although the story is primarily centered around the exploits of General Spielsdorf, it nonetheless relates directly to events which unfold within Carmilla: The Wolves of Styria.
- The novel Carmilla: The Wolves of Styria is a re-imagining of the original story. It is a derivative re-working, listed as being authored by J.S. Le Fanu and David Brian.
- Rachel Klein's 2002 novel "The Moth Diaries" features several excerpts from "Carmilla," as the novel figures into the plot of Klein's story, and both deal with similar subject matter and themes.
- Carmilla: The Return by Kyle Marffin is the sequel to Carmilla.
- Ro McNulty's novella, Ruin: The Rise of the House of Karnstein, is a sequel to Le Fanu's novella and takes place over 100 years later. Carmilla continues to play games with mortals, inserting herself into their lives and breaking them to her will. She settles herself around a teacher and his family, feeding on his baby daughter.
- A vampire named Baron Karnstein appears in Kim Newman's novel Anno Dracula (1992). Carmilla herself is mentioned several times as a former (until her death at the hands of vampire hunters) friend of the book's vampire heroine, Geneviève. Some short stories set in the Anno Dracula series universe have also included Carmilla.
- Author Anne Rice has cited Carmilla as an inspiration for The Vampire Chronicles, her ongoing series beginning in 1976 with Interview with the Vampire.
- Christopher Thomason identified Carmilla as a key influence for his 2015 novel For The Want Of Beauty.
(Alphabetical by series)
- In 1991, Aircel Comics published a six-issue black and white miniseries of Carmilla by Steven Jones and John Ross. It was based on Le Fanu's story and billed as "The Erotic Horror Classic of Female Vampirism". The first issue was printed in February 1991. The first three issues adapted the original story, while the latter three were a sequel set in the 1930s.
- In the first story arc of Dynamite Entertainment's revamp of Vampirella, a villainous vampire, named Le Fanu, inhabits the basement of a Seattle nightclub called Carmilla.
- Danish director Carl Dreyer loosely adapted Carmilla for his film Vampyr (1932), but deleted any references to lesbian sexuality. The credits of the original film say that the film is based on In a Glass Darkly. This collection contains five tales, one of which is Carmilla. Actually the film draws its central character, Allan Gray, from Le Fanu's Dr. Hesselius; and the scene in which Gray is buried alive is drawn from "The Room in the Dragon Volant".
- French director Roger Vadim's Et mourir de plaisir (literally And to die of pleasure, but actually shown in the UK and US as Blood and Roses, 1960) is based on Carmilla and is considered one of the greatest of the vampire genre. The Vadim film thoroughly explores the lesbian implications behind Carmilla's selection of victims, and boasts cinematography by Claude Renoir. The film's lesbian eroticism was however significantly cut for its US release. Mel Ferrer stars in the film.
- A more-or-less faithful adaptation starring Christopher Lee was produced in Italy in 1963 under the title La cripta e l'incubo (Crypt of the Vampire in English). The character of Laura is played by Adriana Ambesi, who fears herself possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor.
- The British Hammer Film Productions also produced a fairly faithful adaptation of Carmilla titled The Vampire Lovers (1970) with Ingrid Pitt in the lead role, Madeline Smith as her victim/lover, and Hammer's regular Peter Cushing. It is the first installment of the Karnstein Trilogy.
- The Blood Spattered Bride (La Novia Ensangrentada) is a 1972 Spanish horror film written and directed by Vicente Aranda, is based on the text. The film has reached cult status for its mix of horror, vampirism and seduction with lesbian overtones.
- Carmilla (1980) is a black-and-white made-for-television adaptation from Poland, starring singer Izabela Trojanowska in the title role and Monika Stefanowicz as Laura.
- The 2000 Japanese anime film Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust features Carmilla "the Bloody Countess" as its primary antagonist. Having been slain by Dracula for her vain and gluttonous tyranny, Carmilla's ghost attempts to use the blood of a virgin to bring about her own resurrection. She was voiced by Julia Fletcher in English and Beverly Maeda in Japanese.
- In the direct-to-video movie, The Batman vs. Dracula (2005), Carmilla Karnstein is mentioned as Count Dracula's bride, who had been incinerated by sunlight years ago. Dracula hoped to revive her by sacrificing Vicki Vale's soul, but the ritual was stopped by the Batman.
- The book is directly referenced several times in the 2011 film, The Moth Diaries, the film version of Rachel Klein's novel. There are conspicuous similarities between the characters in "Carmilla" and those in the film, and the book figures into the film's plot.
- Carmilla is featured as the main antagonist in the movie Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), a comedy starring Paul McGann and James Corden, with Silvia Colloca as Carmilla.
- The Unwanted (2014) from writer/director Brent Wood relocates the story to the contemporary southern United States.
- The Curse of Styria (2014), alternately titled Angels of Darkness is an adaptation of the novel set in late 1980s with Julia Pietrucha as Carmilla and Eleanor Tomlinson as Lara.
References / Footnotes
- Full text of "Carmilla" available through Project Gutenburg.
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