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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla: Inspirations, Interpretations, & a Deep Literary Analysis

None of Le Fanu’s stories compare in influence, popularity, or acclaim to his chef d’oeuvre, “Carmilla.” I say chef d’oeuvre, though I would not say “masterpiece.” “Carmilla” is certainly Le Fanu’s legacy piece, but it is not his best work. The subtlety, chiaroscuro aesthetics, and philosophy of “Schalken,” “Green Tea,” and even “Sir Dominick's Bargain ” may be finer than “Carmilla,” but his great vampire romance is certainly his greatest bid for mainstream attention and remembrance. This is not to slight the piece, however: it suffers primarily from being too “obvious” and detective-y (a suggested vampire – "Schalken the Painter's" Vanderhausen, for instance – is far more effective than one analyzed to death by Van Hesling-esque drones like Vordenburg), but it still remains a prominent jewel in Le Fanu’s crown of literary achievement.


It is the coalescence of many of his drifting themes, which fuse together in this Gothic pageant: we have predatory supernatural nobles, a naïve and vulnerable young generation, psychic detectives, and the blurred relationship between sex and death. Furthermore, it explores the role of possessive lust as the motivator and propellant of death, the obligatory Lefanuvian political allegory for Anglo-Irish colonial relations, studies in sin and its relationship with wealth, a parasitical aristocracy, a beleaguered peasantry, and a twilit landscape of broad shadows and dim lights.




“Carmilla” is unusual for Le Fanu primarily in that its antagonist is a beautiful, young woman with no attitude of haughtiness or entitlement (at least that she lets on). Le Fanu’s villains tend to be corrupt and corpulent aristocratic men: judges, earls, squires, lords of the manor, demon lovers, etc. If they are females (and they rarely are), they are proud noblewomen who shine with beauty but reek with corruption, as in “The Child that Went with the Fairies” – a highly influential prologue to “Carmilla,” as it so happens.


While Carmilla often repels Laura, she is not an arrogant potentate – more like a sluggish, slightly depressed loner who is desperate to possess the heart of her friend. She even exhibits the effects of a variety of mental illnesses (most prominently, borderline personality disorder, a neurosis that causes people to demand affection when it is withdrawn but reject it when it is offered).


Best known as the book that influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula (though it was also heavily influenced by “Ultor de Lacy” and “Aungier Street” – more on that later), and as the one of the earliest uses of the lesbian vampire trope, “Carmilla” is woefully underappreciated as a Gothic powerhouse that stands among the best contributions to the genre of vampire fiction.



Prior to “Carmilla,” few vampires were given such a nuanced, psychological treatment. There was, of course, the cursed Lord Varney – the ultimate prototype of the Dark Shadows / Interview With the Vampire / Blade / Angel / Twilight brand of vampire: a sexy anti-hero with a good heart but a violent curse that prevents him from partaking in the intimate human experiences for which he longs.


Varney was himself proceeded by the overtly evil Lord Ruthven – John Polidori’s tongue-in-cheek satire of his moody employer, Lord Byron, who was famously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Ruthven, notably, was the first “beautiful vampire”: before his literary appearance, folkloric vampires resembled ghouls: putrid flesh dripped from their bones as they tottered around in rotten funeral robes, and – far from Brad Pitt or Robert Pattinson – their faces were fanged skulls, barely covered by torn, mottled skin. But even after the suave Ruthven and the brooding Varney, women figured very little in vampire lore.


Two notable instances of particularly vague vampires were of great influence to Le Fanu in shaping “Carmilla,” and those influences came from the world of high Romantic poetry. First, and most influential, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished supernatural epic, “Christabel.” Written near 1800, the poem tells of the virtuous, virginal Geraldine, who – with her skeptical father – take into their home the vaguely lesbian gold digger Christabel, who is implied to be a demonic shapeshifter. The poem’s Wikipedia editors summarize the plot neatly in five sentences:


“Christabel goes into the woods to pray by the large oak tree, where she hears a strange noise. Upon looking behind the tree, she finds Geraldine who says that she had been abducted from her home by men on horseback. Christabel pities her and takes her home with her; supernatural signs (a dog barking, a mysterious flame on a dead fire) seem to indicate that all is not well. They spend the night together, but while Geraldine undresses, she shows a terrible but undefined mark: "Behold! her bosom and half her side— / A sight to dream of, not to tell! / And she is to sleep by Christabel". Her father, Sir Leoline, becomes enchanted with Geraldine, ordering a grand procession to announce her rescue. The unfinished poem ends here.”


Alongside Coleridge’s incomplete cypher, Le Fanu found inspiration in John Keats’ 1819 poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which tells of a cruel fairy queen, succubus, or demon – a supernatural femme fatale at any rate – who lives in a cave (in the model of Circe) surrounded by stupefied men whom she has seduced and lured into a life of miserable, unrequited passion.


Neither villainess is overtly vampiric – Christabel seems to be a demon or monster, part snake perhaps, while La Belle Dame is a kind of fairy or enchantress – but both introduced the idea of a powerful woman with sexual ambitions that defied Victorian expectations of belonging to a man. For this reason, “Carmilla” has attracted great notice from gender theorists, feminists, and the queer studies community.




But it is as much a fable of politics and society as a commentary on womankind’s potential to rebel against patriarchal legalism. Feminist critic Sally Harris identifies it as a desperate parable of the lasting influence of history well into the future:


“Laura cannot escape her family’s history and is intimately connected to her maternal ancestor. Carmilla’s ‘presence once again suggests that the new times have not found their way out of anguish; the future has already been prefigured in the despairs of the past and has been foredoomed’ (Bhalla 31)... It is possible that what has happened to Carmilla in the past might happen to Laura; she may become a vampire herself. Once Carmilla is killed with a wooden stake through the heart and decapitated, it may seem that her threat and the threat of the past is gone.
    “However, as Jack Sullivan remarks, Carmilla’s death scene ‘fails to contain the larger forces of which she is only a single manifestation’ (60), implying that the threat still exists and explaining Laura’s longing for Carmilla as she concludes her narrative. Sullivan never indicates, though, what the ‘larger forces’ are, but William Veeder recognizes that one of these forces is the past. Although Veeder does not focus on Laura’s family heritage, his statement, ‘the past can never be purged’ (219), is applicable to a reading of “Carmilla” that implies a person is haunted continually by his or her family heritage.”


It is worth noting that “Carmilla”' has – like so many of Le Fanu’s stories – been seen as a codified allegory for Victorian Ireland, the abuses of the aristocracy, the jeopardy of modernization, and the error in attempting to sweep the past under the rug. Its principal virtue as a literary work continues to be the power of irony and the faultiness of stereotypes: Carmilla is assumed to be harmless because she is a young, well-bred girl in spite of the torrent of death and mystery that follows her.


The argument is a sound one, as is the claim that Laura’s Austria is a stand-in for Le Fanu’s Victorian Ireland, and that “Carmilla” is another one of Le Fanu’s political allegories (this holds up well, too: Laura’s father is a well-born, English expatriate who refuses to assimilate to the local culture (which – like Ireland – is poor, agrarian, Catholic, and superstitious), spurning the influence of the peasants, and enamored by any noble who should pass his way.


In this reading, Carmilla represents the allure of the English nobility – a class which was silently using and manipulating its Anglo-Irish following, while more overtly slaughtering the Irish peasants around them. Like Laura’s father, Le Fanu’s fellow Tories were only too quick to blame the Great Famine on anything other than the beautiful, dark-haired princess (Victoria) who had so enchanted them.


Le Fanu deftly angles into sexual and social politics in a bid to challenge what he saw as a contemptuous contentment in Victorian society – one which was happy to enter into political relationships with any nation, policy, company, or group so long as it was well credentialed and offered the prospect of fame or wealth. Carmilla’s credentials appear to be very impressive indeed, and her power to repay Laura’s father for his kindness is surely ingrained in his mind even as he stubbornly tries to ignore her disappearances, moods, sexual possessiveness, and the very alarming fact that both she and his daughter claim to have seen each other in terrifying childhood visions.


In "Carmilla" we find a pretty metaphor for foreign entanglements with attractive international suitors, colonialism, imperialism, and aggressive national policies. We also see a more microcosmic metaphor (seen previously in “Schalken” and “Ultor”) for the means to which ambitious persons will go to please and ingratiate their social betters: lowering their standards, endangering their family, and dismissing alarm bells, all in hopes of amassing material gain or social bona fides.

And then of course, there are the fascinating sexual elements of the story: Carmilla’s initial pedophilic overture (fondling the under-age Laura under the covers), her contradictory neediness and evasiveness, her eroticizing of casual encounters with her new friend, and of course her many implied orgasms.


There is also Laura, who is too polite to express her embarrassment when Carmilla reaches a climax by holding her hand or brushing her hair, who is both comforted and repelled by her companion’s dotting possessiveness, and who secretly wonders if Carmilla could be an admirer disguised in drag.


Despite its popularity as a progressive, queer text, “Carmilla” does not feature a politically correct, consensual relationship between loving, liberal, sexually-liberated, lesbian adult women. Carmilla is a sexual predator – just as repellant as any emotionally manipulative, male abuser: she gropes and caresses Laura without permission, secretly threatens her with violence if she ever loves anyone else, and spontaneously demands to touch her and be touched.



And yet “Carmilla” – which is no mouthpiece for LGBTQ rights (although Victorians' attitudes toward homosexuality -- while hardly progressive -- were surprisingly more liberal than historical iconoclasts like to imagine) – is not nearly as homophobic to its queer antagonist as you might expect horror story about a lesbian vampire written by a Victorian Tory to be: in spite of all her genuine evil, she is pitiable, lonely, and endearing.


She genuinely seems to love her friend and though her behavior is manipulative and mercenary, her affection appears to be authentic. She seems more tragic and weary, motivated by addiction and appetite rather than misanthropy or malice. For the era in which she was created, Carmilla is one of the most humanely depicted lesbian characters on record.


In fact, her execution by Vordenburg is described in a remarkably unsavory nature, and it is his callous attitude – bitterly described by Laura – which leaves modern readers with a sour taste in our mouths at the end, not a particularly homophobic treatment of Carmilla by Le Fanu. Accordingly, queer theorists have found in her a literary martyr who is drawn to kill not by wickedness, but by the constricting demands of her patriarchal society which prevent her appetites from being expressed openly: it is the closeting of Carmilla, they argue, that results in the vampirism which haunts her repressed community.


Regardless of how you read “Carmilla” – social parable, political fable, psychological treatise, or sexual odyssey – it has remained a compelling part of the Gothic canon since its conception, and – in my personal opinion – has a notable edge over Dracula.   


Unlike most other fictional vampires (before Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers), she attracts a great deal of pathos. We later learn that she was “turned” against her will by the ghost of a suicide, and we have the distinct feeling that her “mother” is more of a pimp or a handler than a parent. Indeed, several scholars have argued that one of “Carmilla”’s major themes is prostitution: Carmilla is, in a sense, a sex worker whose job is to lure the desirable Laura into the profession; the vampiric disease is a metaphor for STI’s like syphilis; her two means of killing – she quickly throttles and consumes peasant girls but slowly woos and drains noblewomen – are analogous to how sexual abuse effects women of the two classes (lower class women were often violently raped without much effort at concealment, while upper class women needed to be carefully seduced and manipulated).



Whatever its meaning, “Carmilla” is sadly more remembered for its influence than its stand-alone merits. In 2014 I annotated and illustrated Bram Stoker’s great novel, and I can say with great certainty that it is inferior to “Carmilla.” Long, dry, clichéd, and weighed down by facile characters and neurotic sexual politics, it is a wonderful piece of sensational fiction, but it lacks the imagination, realism, and panache of Le Fanu’s pen. Notwithstanding, “Carmilla” was, of course, a tremendous influence on Dracula for reasons that you’ll understand if you read the two in succession.


In fact, Dracula is an amalgam of at least four Le Fanu stories (if not more): “Carmilla,” “Ultor de Lacy,” “Disturbances in Aungier Street,” and “Schalcken the Painter.” “Ultor” gave Stoker his sisterly-but-sensual Lucy/Mina dynamic, “Aungier Street” provided him the opening Harker drama with its gradual manipulation and domination of a skeptical male, “Schalcken” offered the trope of the grotesque-but-charismatic, otherworldly seducer, and “Carmilla” supplied Van Helsing, the vampire lore, sleepwalking, the bodice-busting sensuality (uncommon in vampire fiction previously), and the entire rhythm of piquing the readers’ suspicions well before the characters until the suspenseful narrative irony is maddening.


Carmilla also shares a common historical ancestor with Dracula: Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory (1560 – 1614), the most prolific female killer on record. With the help of four servants, she lured hundreds of peasant girls (perhaps as many as 650) to her castle where she tortured them to death and was rumored to have drained their blood into her bath (under the impression that soaking in young women’s blood would give her immortality). Over 300 witnesses verified her brutality, including dying girls who were rescued from their dungeons, and the mutilated corpses whose wounds testified to their own abuse.


Báthory was powerful and well connected: while her servants were hideously executed, she – somewhat like the snarling, room-bound Madam Crowl – was simply confined to an apartment where she died in solitary confinement. When Carmilla is discovered hibernating in her coffin (like Dracula in his own fatal climax) – floating in seven inches of warm blood – this is a direct allusion to Báthory’s alleged practice of stewing in the gore of virgins in a bid for eternal youth.



Also like Count Dracula, Countess Carmilla/Mircalla has entered the world of pop culture and holds the honor of being one of the few stories by J. S. Le Fanu to have been adapted on the silver screen: first (very loosely) in 1932’s gorgeously dark, German Expressionist movie, Vampyr, then in the 1960 French film Blood and Roses, wherein Carmilla, a human, goes to a vampire’s tomb to become a bloodsucker after being enraged by her friend’s engagement.

These opening salvos were followed by four widely adored cult films: 1964’s powerful Crypt of the Vampire – with Christopher Lee (on the other side of the stake as Laura’s father) – and 1970 and '71's misogynistic, cheesecake gore-fest trilogy, Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil (the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy”) with Ingrid Pitt famously starring in the first film.

After this, Meg Tilly and Ione Skye starred with Roddy McDowell in a ludicrous TV adaptation that transposed the action to the antebellum American South, Spain produced a 1972 cult classic called The Blood Spattered Bride, an unfortunate black comedy called Lesbian Vampire Killers was filmed in 2009, and a stylish, atmospheric art-film – starring Hannah Rae and Devrim Lingau – was released in 2019.  

One of the most unique adaptations was a campy, indie Canadian webseries (Carmilla, 2014 - 2016) which plays up the text's queer elements, adapting the plot for the 21st century through the medium of a college student's (Laura) vlog to comic effect, but with the same obvious, geeky love for the source material with which Mel Brooks infused Young Frankenstein.

Here the leather-clad, bad-girl, Carmilla is devoted to and genuinely protective of the straight-laced, straight-A’s Laura. They become roommates after Laura's first one mysteriously "disappears" allowing Carmilla to move in. It ran for 112 episodes and culminated in 2017’s predictably campy, fan-service production, The Carmilla Movie.

These are just the most notable adaptations, of course, and there are dozens of short films, stage plays, pastiches, graphic novels, radio dramas, and even a prominent anime character which merit investigating by the Carmilla connoisseur.


“Carmilla” certainly opened a vein in the fascinating genre of queer studies, becoming a pet piece of gender studies critics, feminists, and queer theory academics, who recognized in it a nuanced treatment of lesbian sexuality that – while landing heavily on the conservative side, allowed for such a forbidden topic to be openly considered and discussed in Victorian Britain. Carmilla is also relatively sympathetic, and – far from being an unredeemable Lilith – is shown to be herself a victim controlled by her pimps and deprived of the friendship and acceptance that she desires.


These are themes which understandably fascinate students of lesbian fiction. Regardless of whether she is seen as a queer threat, a female threat, a foreign threat, an aristocratic threat, or a political threat, the prevalent power in Carmilla’s presence is that of her ability to endanger the conventional norms.

This is why Marxists, feminists, and new histoircists have banded together with queer theorists to examine the powerful menace that she poses to the terrified men of Styria (Laura at no point in the narrative seems to be scandalized by Carmilla – at the most repelled, though arguably more by her own “embarrassing” response to her sexual overtures than by the acts themselves).


In her 2014 essay, “Literary Nostalgia: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu,” the poet and critic Shinjini Bhattacharjee effectively expressed what was so uniquely intimidating about Carmilla in the 19th century and why that should make her something of a folk-anti-hero in the 21st century:


“Carmilla therefore, as the uncivilized cultural Other, the primitive Other and as the racial Other, for the dominant heteronormative society becomes the source of violence towards the white woman, an act which becomes the symbol of the most dangerous form of insubordination and therefore ultimately gets subjected to the traditional means of vampire extermination. But though this neat conclusion seems to point towards the idea that in the society, such forbidden kinships always get asphyxiated by the dominant order, it can more conclusively read as a defiance of that very conventional assumption, though at a fantastical plane. For, since Le Fanu suggests, ‘the vampire victims must become vampires themselves,’ there remains a distinct possibility that all of Carmilla’s victims, including Laura … will be resurrected as vampires and will continue to forge these radical alliances.
“Sue Ellen-Case in her insightful essay Tracking the Vampire examines the manner in which lesbian vampires destabilize the normative equations of heterosexuality as fertile and therefore life and homosexuality as sterile and therefore dead by deriving erotic pleasure from sterility, thereby occupying, to use Carpenter’s term, ‘an intermediate space’ which enables them to undo the boundaries defining heterosexual society.
“By forging a radical solidarity defined by a political deconstruction of the existing discourses through their shared sense of marginalization, Carmilla and Laura’s relationship not only critiques the ideological determinism which defines the heteronormative ‘imagined community’ of the imperial society, but also exults in its role as a possible cure for the very same society, which as Carpenter in Civilization: Its Cause and Cure puts it, ‘is more and more rapidly becoming a mere formula and husk within which the outlines of a new and human society are already discernible. Simultaneously, and as if to match this growth, a move towards…savagery is for the first time taking place from within.’”



“Carmilla” rises above its flaws as one of Le Fanu’s few certain legacies. Until Dracula itself becomes forgotten, it will always be remembered as the pseudo-pilfered source material, and as I write, it appears to be experiencing a resurrection among the younger generations – in no small part due to its nuanced characterization of Carmilla – one more complex and humanizing than most Victorian audiences were surely comfortable with. While not as well shaded as “Schalken,” as compelling as “Green Tea,” or as terrifying as “Aungier Street,” “Carmilla” rightfully has earned its place as Le Fanu’s greatest bid for immortality.    



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