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Sexy Vampire Fun: Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Be prepared for sexy, sexy vampire fun. Oh, and spoilers.

If you know anything about vampires in folklore and fiction, you will probably know the following:

  1. The vampire myth developed somewhere in Eastern Europe. It was all about fears of the dead coming back to life and visiting their family members to make life difficult for them, and also, because we’re dealing with Folk Legends, may have at least partly been invented by women eager to cover up the fact that they’d been fooling around with other men after their husbands had shuffled off this mortal coil. Folk legends can be so quaint and innocent and lovely like that.
  2. Surprisingly, the vampires of ancient folk legend rarely actually sucked blood. Which basically means that they more or less just… sucked.
  3. Vampires did not, under any circumstances, sparkle.

But if you’re an uber-vampire nerd, or if like me you’ve just finished reading a book about the development of the folk legends about vampires in Eastern Europe (which I think just makes me an uber nerd), you’ll also know that one of the first stories about vampires in the English language, before the lid of Dracula’s coffin creaked open ominously for the first time, was the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s story Carmilla.

Told from the perspective of a heroine so wet that one feels the instinctive need to put on a raincoat before reading, Carmilla tells of a mysterious female visitor to the heroine’s home. Our hideously boring heroine (I think her name might be Laura, but honestly she was so dull I can’t even be bothered to go back through the book and check) befriends the beautiful and mysterious Carmilla, whose mother has dramatically abandoned her to stay in the isolated forest home of a complete and total stranger, as one does. This does not raise any red flags with anybody, and the heroine and Carmilla start getting all chummy. Very chummy indeed. But it’s not long before the heroine starts having strange dreams and seeing things in the night, all of which is accompanied by some peculiar symptoms that defy neat diagnosis. Red Flag #2, in other words.

Well, basically, if you have even half a brain you can guess what happens next: Carmilla turns out to be a vampire who’s been feeding off our poor stupid heroine. I can’t help but wonder, had the heroine had a copy of Twilight like every self-respecting millenial teenager on the planet, whether all this nonsense might have been avoided.

What’s so interesting about this story is not only the fact that we have an early example of a vampire in English literature; it’s also that this story is often touted for being quite… well, gay. No two ways about it. The strange influence that Carmilla exerts over the heroine (at times she seems to repulse our prudish heroine, but she also attracts her powerfully), the fact that there are constant references to how damn spankin’ hot Carmilla is (and the story is told from the heroine’s point of view, after all), the descriptions of how Carmilla feeds on her victims (who are always young women, it seems). The heroine tells us that in spending time with Carmilla she “experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust … I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence” (Chapter IV). Wowee.

It’s the same sort of powerful attraction that shows up in so many soppy stories of women falling in love with handsome yet terrifying male vampires that would follow Le Fanu’s story.

So even though the writing left much to be desired (from the uninspired descriptions of Carmilla’s beauty to the obvious anagrams of Carmilla’s name in the names of other mysterious female characters whose behaviour mirrored Carmilla’s own and, unsurprisingly, turned out to be Carmilla under an assumed name), Carmilla still made for an interesting read. Certainly reading about Carmilla was much more interesting than reading yet another story about a soppy girl falling in love with a dark and brooding vampiric hero. It’s worth reading, if only to see where the literary vampire’s roots lie, and to see how one of the earliest female vampires had her debut.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 stars

6 replies on “Sexy Vampire Fun: Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu”

i’ve read some Le Fanu but not this one… thank goodness… altho if i manage to locate a copy, i still might indulge, but i’d put a raincoat first, haha… magnetic review: tx…

You sell this so well! I wonder how much Carmilla was influenced, if at all, by Polidori’s The Vampyre (spawned in the same night as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) — not at all, in this showing! Incidentally, I babysat a couple of times for Sarah Le Fanu in Bristol in the 1980s — though only distantly related to J S Le Fanu she’s certainly a writer in her own right.

Wow! It’s interesting to trace these kinds of talents through families :D

I didn’t see many similarities between this and Polidori’s story, but then again it has been many years since I read it – might be time for a reread so that I can compare the two!

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