Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
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You know, the problem with having niche interests is that most people excuse themselves out of a conversation with me as soon I start rambling about things like prototypical lesbian¹ vampires as literary devices in Victorian-era fiction. It's not that uncommon of a conversation topic, right? I suppose you just have to be around the right people, though. Good thing I've got you.
For many people, vampires only sprung into existence in fiction when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. They know about, but have never seen, the 1922 film Nosferatu and just look downright confused when I mention Carmilla.
In 1872, fifty years before Nosferatu and twenty-six years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, a man named Sheridan Le Fanu wrote a vampire story called Carmilla, and it set the literary world on fire—no, wait, that's not right. A slow smolder? Reheat? Oh, I know.
Carmilla set the literary world on defrost.
You see, it never quite achieved the fame of other, later vampire stories. But, why? What happened? What's it about? Well, let's dig into horror history together and find out.
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
"In an isolated castle deep in the Austrian forest, Laura leads a solitary life with only her ailing father for company. Until one moonlit night, a horse-drawn carriage crashes into view, carrying an unexpected guest – the beautiful Carmilla. So begins a feverish friendship between Laura and her mysterious, entrancing companion. But as Carmilla becomes increasingly strange and volatile, prone to eerie nocturnal wanderings, Laura finds herself tormented by nightmares and growing weaker by the day…." — Goodreads, December 22, 2021, 5:00 p.m., https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48037.Carmilla
The story was published as a serial in a London-based literary magazine called The Dark Blue, and back then, you could pick it up for a smooth one shilling. Nowadays, you can save yourself a shilling and read it online for free at Project Gutenberg. As you might expect, the writing feels like it's from over a century ago, but the entire story holds up incredibly well.
So, why did Dracula become a huge commercial success and Carmilla didn't? Let's briefly compare the story summaries to find out.
Carmilla: A strong, intelligent woman is torn between her developing love of a mysterious, beautiful woman and conforming to Victorian-era oppression.
Dracula: A bunch of dudes team up and defeat a monster. Not detailed enough? Okay, let me try again. A lawyer dude, a rich dude, a cowboy dude, a doctor dude, and another doctor dude who is also rich (and a professional monster hunter) team up to save two helpless womenfolk. Better?
🤔 I guess it will remain a mystery. Oh well. Moving on.
Carmilla has everything you could want in Gothic fiction: a supernatural figure, an old dark castle, a mysterious atmosphere, an ominous feeling, and realistic characters. Sheridan Le Fanu was a true trailblazer in the dark romanticism literary movement. His ghost stories, vampire stories, and horror fueled new ideas and tones that still continue today.
Horror as a genre constantly changes with current events, wrapping common fears into stories and reflecting them back at society. One of the deep-seated fears in Victorian society was women's empowerment, and Carmilla is teeming with it while also portraying the men as incapable and helpless. This might be one of the reasons why Carmilla fell into relative obscurity compared to stories like Dracula. It was too threatening to men at the time—a threat that still strikes terror into many men today.
After centuries of drastic inequality, the literacy rate among men and women had finally become equal just two years before Carmilla was published. Men thought women who read were distracting themselves from domestic duties—and dangerous. So dangerous that standards and rules were created on both what and how women were allowed to read.
Carmilla had a drastic impact on vampire fiction and still does today, 150 years later. Books, comics, film, music, opera, periodicals, radio, stage, television, web series, video games—every medium has examples of its influence. As the world changes and new storytelling platforms emerge, creators continue to draw from the ideas of Sheridan Le Fanu.
Despite the stark contrast I drew between Dracula and Carmilla earlier, I honestly like Dracula, but for very different reasons than I like Carmilla. Interestingly, Bram Stoker wrote a prologue to Dracula that everyone believed was a standalone story. It wasn't until 2008 when a writer with access to the original manuscript found that Dracula's Guest was actually removed. The publishers thought the first chapter was superfluous—and it happened to be a tribute to Sheridan Le Fanu and Carmilla. Horror is a rich tapestry of interwoven threads, story worlds overlapping, characters reimagined across mediums.
Relevant & Related
- I found Carmilla as a free audiobook on YouTube!
- Author Anne Rice talks about Carmilla in an interview from 1989.
- English extreme metal band Cradle of Filth created an entire concept album called Dusk and Her Embrace, inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla.
- You can watch Nosferatu online for free. It goes well with air-popped popcorn and licorice jammed behind your upper lip like floppy vampire teeth. Or a walrus.
- Carmilla's setting is a place called Styria, which borders Slovenia. Slovenia happens to be a place connected to my story Absolution. That part of Europe is full of wonderful folklore and is one of the reasons I chose it for my story.
- Right now might be your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about Vampire Pumpkins & Watermelons.
- Carmilla isn't the oldest piece of vampire fiction.
- Also, there's a Carmilla web series in vlog format! It's freely available on KindaTV's YouTube channel!
- Read about another penny dreadful post of mine: Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood
¹ I've chosen to use the word "lesbian" instead of the word "sapphic." It seems a lot of online articles about Carmilla prefer "sapphic," but I believe "lesbian" is more accurate given the context of this specific work of fiction. To learn more about the modern usage of the word sapphic, check out this post by Jess over at "A Lesbian and Her Laptop." If you disagree with my assessment, please do let me know, as I'd love to hear another take on it.