Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872
by Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872
"Carmilla" is the last of the five stories constituting Sheridan Le Fanu's most important collection, In a Glass Darkly (1872). This Gothic tale of vampirism is narrated by the heroine, whose survival from her ordeal can thus be taken for granted from the outset; her narrative is, however, distanced in two ways. Like the other stories in the collection "Carmilla" is framed by being a supposed case history of medical and psychological interest prepared by a learned German physician, Dr. Martin Hesselius, whose papers have been edited by his friend and assistant, an unnamed fellow physician. Furthermore, the prologue to the tale notes that the narrator, who had communicated her story to Dr. Hesselius many years earlier, has died in the interval.
This distancing of the narrative voice and use of a period setting, clearly intended to counteract in some measure—or perhaps by contrast to heighten—the dark and lurid elements of the tale of horror, are matched by geographical remoteness. Almost inevitably for a story so firmly in the Gothic tradition, it is set in Central Europe and, as the opening description makes clear, in a very lonely place: a Gothic castle surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge and set deep in a forest miles from the nearest habitation. In view of the sexual elements in the story that follows, it seems legitimate to detect sexual symbolism in this setting.
Here the heroine lives with her father and governesses; like many another heroine of a Gothic tale she is motherless. An early reference to an abandoned village nearby is not expanded upon and creates, or adds to, a mood of mystery that will not be resolved until a much later stage. Into this small and archetypally isolated setting another character is introduced, the eponymous young woman who will first appear to fill the role of much-needed friend and substitute-sister, then will emerge as an intense and frightening lover, and finally will be seen as a would-be murderess. Carmilla is introduced, appropriately, through a violent carriage accident that is graphically described and that guarantees her admission as a long-term guest in the castle.
At this point the reader familiar with Coleridge's "Christabel" will be reminded of a similar incident. In that famous romantic poem (never completed but published in 1816), the witch-woman Geraldine takes the form of a damsel in distress and, befriended by the heroine, is taken to her father's castle, being carried in her weak state over the threshold. Le Fanu's story uses a similar incident, and this and other resemblances make it seem likely that he had Coleridge's poem in mind.
Carmilla's true nature as a vampire is not revealed until later in the story, and at first she is presented as a young lady surrounded by mystery (she refuses to answer any questions about her home, her family, or her past) but acceptable without recourse to the supernatural. There are, however, hints that in the light of subsequent knowledge can be interpreted as pointing to the truth. An old picture in the castle, newly cleaned, shows a face identical to Carmilla's belonging to a woman long dead whose name is an anagram of Carmilla's own (though the clue is not picked up by the other characters at the time). Carmilla does not appear during the earlier part of the day, though it seems that, at times when she is believed to be in her room with doors and windows locked, she is sometimes seen roaming outdoors. Her moods alternate between periods of feverish excitement and phases of extreme weariness. ("Languid" is a recurring epithet applied to her.) And the heroine has a number of dreams or visions in which she is attacked by a nocturnal visitor. Le Fanu skillfully assembles these and other hints before disclosing the vampire's real identity.
In its early manifestations Carmilla's yearning to make the heroine her victim takes the form of an intense romantic attachment, and for modern readers this suggests an attempt to depict lesbian passion. There is, for example, a remarkable passage in the fourth chapter that effectively contrasts the vampire's possessive determination and the heroine's innocent unawareness: "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, you and I are one for ever."' This cleverly exploits the ambiguity of a situation capable of interpretation without recourse to the idea of vampirism but entirely consistent with that outcome. The use of the first-person narrative contributes to this effect in that the heroine, ignorant alike of lesbianism and vampirism, is baffled as well as frightened by Carmilla's behavior and desperately seeks commonplace explanations such as a fit of insanity.
The climax of the narrative involves the discovery of the vampire's grave, where she lies in a living state, and her destruction by the traditional devices of impaling, decapitating, and burning. It becomes clear that the passion felt by Carmilla for her victim has blended the erotic with the homicidal or perhaps used the erotic as a mask for the homicidal, and some of her fervent but puzzling declarations come to be seen in their true light—for example, in the passage, "In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine."
As this summary suggests "Carmilla" embodies many of the traditional elements of the vampire tale and ought probably to be seen as an important influence on a better-known work published later in the century by another Irish writer, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), which has many ingredients in common with Le Fanu's tale. In the twentieth century "Carmilla" was the inspiration for a remarkable and very early sound film, Vampyr (1932), by Danish director Carl Dreyer. Historically speaking "Carmilla" is thus an important link between the Gothic fiction of the romantic period and later examples of the Gothic horror story and specifically the vampire story.