This book by J. Sheridan Le Fanu was so much fun! I had never heard of it before until Book Riot decided to have their own Vampire Day, during which they celebrated a bunch of vampire-related books, including this one based on a web series I’ve never heard of, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley. When I tried to get it from my library, all I could find was the original Carmilla by Le Fanu, and I was like, “Yeah, OK, let’s see what this is all about.”
I’ve read an abridged version of the original Dracula and seen a play based on the novel, but if you’re not aware (as I was not) Carmilla actually predates Bram Stoker’s more well-known vampire, and focuses on two women, rather than two men. It seems probably that, not only was Stoker aware of Carmilla, but that he most likely used it as inspiration for his own vampire tale, but as so often happens, he pushed the women off to the side and put two men at the center of the conflict instead.
In Le Fanu’s story, Laura is a young woman growing up in a fairly isolated castle in the country in Australia. I can’t remember what happened to her mother, but it’s just she, her father, and the servants living in this castle, so she’s awfully lonely. When she’s about five years old, she wakes up at one point in the middle of the night to find the pale face of a beautiful woman looking at her. She sneaks into the bed with Laura and Laura reports being unafraid until feeling a puncture “at her breast” where her neck meets her collar bone. She screams, her nurse comes running into the bedroom, and they can’t find any trace of the strange woman who invaded her room, leaving everyone to conclude it was merely a dream.
About a decade or so later, Laura is a young woman (still very lonely) when there’s a carriage accident near her home. The carriage contains a young woman of about Laura’s age, named Carmilla, and her mother, who insists she has to continue on her journey on an urgent matter, but her daughter is too ill to carry on. Laura and her father offer to keep Carmilla with them, but once they’re inside and Laura gets a good look at her face, she immediately recognizes the visage that haunted her all those years ago. Carmilla recognizes Laura, too, and tells her a story of how Laura appeared to her in a dream at the same time Carmilla appeared in Laura’s “dream”. Carmilla points out that it’s strange that Laura appeared in her dream exactly as she is now (instead of as a child), and Laura agrees it’s equally strange that she saw Carmilla in her dream exactly as she is now, instead of as a child. Carmilla decides fate has brought them together and that they shall be the best of friends (I’ve always thought it odd how quickly Victorian women appeared to be willing to decide to become BFFs. Is that just me?)
So Carmilla stays with them for an undefined period of time, but she admits she has an irrational need to sleep with her bedroom door locked due to a robbery that occurred in her house at night when she was a child (how convenient).
At the same time a bunch of young women in the town nearby have been struck by a strange illness. They grow inexplicably weak and start suffering from bad dreams, but then they appear to rally just before they die.
No one can figure out what this strange malady is, or what’s causing it, but while they’re trying to figure it out, Carmilla is definitely seducing Laura. Le Fanu doesn’t even bother to try to be subtle about it.
Carmilla says things to Laura like, “You shall be mine, you and I are one forever,” which sounds to me like Carmilla isn’t planning on just killing Laura, but on turning her into a vampire. She also makes some hints about how she was made into a vampire that made me feel rather sorry for her. This is before Laura knows she’s a vampire, so it’s not confirmed, but since I knew going in what the book was about, I assumed that was the incident she was talking about. She had no say in whether she would be given immortality (what mortal is given a say in that matter?) and the result is that, in some ways, she’s as lonely as Laura, which could be why she’s so attracted to Laura.
At one point, they get a good look at an old painting that has recently been restored. It’s a painting of Mircalla Karnstein, a member of a local aristocratic family that died out centuries ago, but once they get a good look at the painting, it’s clear that the painting of Mircalla is really a painting of Carmilla (have you figured out yet that Carmilla is an anagram of Mircalla?) but Carmilla brushes off the resemblance as being due to the fact that she’s distantly related to the family.
After a while, Laura starts to come down with the strange disease that has been plaguing the young girls in town and her father begins to grow anxious about her. At the same time, they meet up with another man who lives some miles off who was supposed to visit with them before his daughter got sick and died, which just happened to be right before Carmilla came to live with Laura and her father. He tells a story remarkably similar to how Carmilla came into their lives and what her visit was like, and he blames her and her family for the death of his daughter. He sounds kind of crazy, but he has evidence to back up his claims, and his story is too similar to what they’ve experienced with Carmilla for them to be able to completely write him off.
The story ends with them hunting down Carmilla, whom they find resting peacefully in her coffin filled with blood. They drive a stake through her heart and she screams and thrashes before finally dying for good.
Aside from the coffin full of blood, I think the biggest thing that struck me about this book was the fact that Carmilla apparently had no problem going out in the sunlight, but most, if not all of her supernatural activity tended to happen at night, when she was able to slip out of locked rooms and cross miles of ground in a very short period of time.
I thoroughly enjoyed this Victorian novella, I would highly recommend it, and I can only hope my library gets a copy of the updated version by Kim Turrisi so I can compare and contrast.
What did you read/listen to this week? Any other classics I should check out?