Carmilla – Sophisticated Precurser to Dracula


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I have only come across a few of the stories of Sheridan le Fanu (descendant of Byron’s old carousing partner Sheridan) but I have always been very impressed by them. There is a sophisticated control about them, a understated style that makes the horror of the Gothic terrors portrayed the more telling.

Carmilla was one of the first two adult stories I read (the other being Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and it made a big impression on me.

I was also sufficiently sophisticated to be aware of the undercurrents of lesbian vampirism running through the story, which though of course, handled within the constraints of what a Victorian reading public would find acceptable, are certainly unmistakable for anyone from the Post Freudian age.

Just as in the later Dracula, the setting is superb; the isolated castle, the surrounding woods, the lonely bedchamber where poor Laura begins to face regular ordeals from a terrible, suffocating and clearly sexual presence.

It is of course, pure co-incidence that her widower father has just taken into their castle for an extended stay the lovely Carmilla of the flowing hair, who has a sort of panic attack when Laura joins in a hymn being sung by a funeral procession of peasants and who says absently in response to Laura’s naïve questions about her first ball ‘It is so long ago, I scarce remember…’

Well, after a couple of hundred years, it would fade from her memory.

In this story, there is also the wise unconventional doctor who is called in to solve the conundrum (surely the inspiration for Van Helsing), one Dr Martin Hesselius, from whose casebook Carmilla is supposedly drawn in le Fanu’s  1872 collection of five short stories ‘In a Glass Darkly ’.

There is a telling episode where a pedlar teases Carmilla, who is laughing down at him with Laura from the window, about her long eyeteeth. She flies into a fury and says that her father would have had him whipped till the blood ran down his back.  We see at once the cruelty hidden behind her fragrant beauty.

For anyone who wants to sample a classic, brilliant vampire story (and perhaps doesn’t have the time to progress through Dracula) I believe Carmilla to be perfect.

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