Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla"

Are you sick of the Twilight series? Tired of "nice" vampires who stumble into the moral center of a story? I suspect some writers are trying to put a fresh spin on the vampire story by telling the tale from the vampire's perspective or somehow portraying the vampire in a sympathetic manner. Nothing wrong with telling an old story in a new way, but vampires are inherently evil. They're parasites who live off the blood of their victims and usually kill their hosts in the process. They follow an alternate path to eternal life, albeit at a high cost. The question of how one becomes a vampire--a conscious choice or an act of outside aggression--raises the question of guilt and redemption, themes an author could explore in a vampire story.

So, if you're yearning for an insidious, evil villain, here's an old vampire story that you probably have not read. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla" first appeared in the magazine The Dark Blue in serial form from December 1871 through March 1872 and later as part of his collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). "Carmilla," like the other stories from In a Glass Darkly, is presented as part of the case files of Dr. Martin Hesselius. Hesselius is a character in the story "Green Tea" but acts only as a framing device for the other tales. Laura, the narrator and protagonist of "Carmilla," lives with her father and two governesses in a schloss (castle) in Styria, an Austrian province near Hungary. Laura and her father are English expatriates. Her mother, a Styrian lady, died when Laura was an infant. Laura recalls that when she was six, she had a vision of a beautiful young woman in her bedchamber who lay beside her and bit her on the chest, although Laura's nurse found no wounds on her.  Laura is nineteen when the events of her narrative take place and leads a lonely, isolated life in the Austrian countryside. She is saddened to learn that Bertha Rheinfeldt, a young girl who was to visit her has mysteriously died. The letter that Laura and her father receive from General Spielsdorf, Bertha's uncle and guardian, is rambling and filled with grief.

The very evening that Laura learns of Bertha's death, a carriage accident occurs on the road that passes Laura's home. One of the occupants--a young girl named Carmilla--appears injured but not seriously. The girl's mother insists that she must continue on her urgent journey and a hasty arrangement is reached whereby Carmilla will stay under the care of Laura and her father until the mother can return for her in three months. Before she leaves, the mother states that Carmilla will reveal no details of her family or past and is of sound mind. Laura recognizes Carmilla as the woman from her dream. Carmilla responds with a story of a similar dream involving Laura. Carmilla evinces many strange habits, including apparent sleepwalking, and complains of incessant languor. The pair become close friends despite Carmilla's occasional romantic advances towards Laura.

Following the restoration of some old portraits, Laura discovers that the one depicting Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, dated 1698, exactly matches the countenance of Carmilla. (Note the anagram of the names.) Nightmares in which a cat-like beast climbs onto her bed and bites her chest before transforming into a woman that disappears through the closed door troubles Laura's nights. She becomes increasingly ill with a sort of wasting disease. Events reach the breaking point when General Spielsdorf arrives.

I won't spoil the ending. This story has colored many later portrayals of female vampires and influenced the work of Le Fanu's fellow Irishman Bram Stoker, predating Dracula by twenty-five years. The tale is narrated in a very nineteenth-century style but don't let that put you off. "Carmilla" is well worth a read.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting--I'll have to read this. I hopped over and looked it up on Amazon, and sure enough it's FREE on Kindle. Here's the link: