A Rookie’s Experience of Vampire Fiction:
Going into a book knowing that it arguably canonised vampire fiction (or Gothic horror) – written in 1872 (thus 26 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula) – makes for an intimidating first impression. Yet, at no point did I feel overwhelmed by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. I relaxed into an easy-going reading of the vampire novella, as if finally tasting chocolate after only ever having chocolate-flavoured things.
That said, it’s time for a confession: my regard for vampire fiction until quite recently was The Twilight Saga, The Vampire Diaries, and a cartoon adaptation of Dracula, voiced by Adam Sandler. So, what I’m saying is: I knew very little about it. I have always understood that part of the package with genre-fiction and thus vampire fiction are tropes, but until reading Carmilla, I didn’t realise that tropes can be employed delicately and masterfully (not to mention the fact that Carmilla practically invented a lot of them).
Now, I’ll move on to a short review of the book, separating it from a discussion of genre tropes because I believe this is absolutely critical to being a broad-reader. In the same way no romance novelist dreams of having his/her book shoved to the back of a pastel-coloured corner of Waterstone’s where women are forced to justify their preferences with the phrases “guilty pleasure”, “chick lit” or “holiday read” (in a way no man is ever forced to describe his preference for spy-novels, but I will save that rant for another time), no “vampire” book deserves to be considered only through the lens of “vampire lit.”
Le Fanu’s Carmilla is mysterious and energetic, two vital elements of a novella. Carmilla is narrated by a young girl we come to know as Laura. From the beginning, we learn that she has a story to tell, one that she hardly understands herself: “I am now going to tell you something so strange that it will require all your faith in my veracity to believe my story. It is not only true, nevertheless, but truth of which I have been an eyewitness.” Laura’s story is, in fact, a thing of mystery: a strange guest comes to stay with the girl and her father in their rural schloss (German for château, palace or manor house). The girl’s name is Carmilla. She’s beautiful, electric, intense. But, she refuses to reveal where she’s from or even her last name. The longer the guest stays with the family, the weaker Laura becomes. She begins to have (what she thinks are) vivid nightmares of Carmilla in her room, covered in blood. Even in the day, Carmilla seems to prey on Laura like a wanton lover. All the while, girls in neighboring villages begin to turn weak and die of a mysterous disease. Only after a family friend – the General – reveals a similar tale do Laura and her father learn that they’ve been housing a vampire. In the end, the father, the General, and the daughter must figure out how to rid the villages of the fiend.
Carmilla. Mircalla. Millarca. Countess of the Undead. Whatever name she may choose to go by, it’s for certain that she’s a vampire with a predilection for preying on her own gender, her words in their ears revealing her strange, unsettling nature: “You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me, and still come with me, and hating me through death and after. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature.”
Despite its age, Carmilla is still a fascinating read. It’s vibrant, well-paced, and the perfect combination of mystery and horror.