“But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.“
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the book that comes to mind when I think about vampyr novels, but J. Sheridan Lefanu’s Carmilla predates Dracula by over 2 decades. I really didn’t expect much when I picked up Carmilla, but I found myself drawn into this intense gothic tale. The prologue establishes that the story comes from the notebook of a Dr. Hesselius, but the body of the tale is told by Laura, whose English father, upon retirement from the Austrian service, purchased a remote castle located on the edge of a forest. The gothic castle comes complete with a drawbridge and moat. The remoteness of the castle is established immediately, but it’s more than just remote: it’s creepy. The forest is large, extending 15 miles to the right of the castle and 12 miles to the left. General Spielsdorf’s schloss is 20 miles away. 3 miles to the west is an abandoned village with an equally abandoned chateau that was once owned by the now vanished, noble Karnstein family.
When the story opens, Laura is 19. She lives with her father and two older women who are companions. Laura stresses that she is lonely and isolated. This is a dull life for a young girl, and her isolation contributes to the events that take place. But there’s change and excitement in the air with the expected arrival of General Spielsdorf and his niece/ward Bertha Rheinfeldt. But excitement fades to sadness and disappointment when Laura’s father receives a letter from the General informing him the visit is cancelled as Bertha is dead. The letter also contains some cryptic information, which is ascribed to the general’s grief, that he is now tracking a “monster” who is responsible for Bertha’s death.
Just as Laura and her father absorb the news, a carriage accident takes place literally outside of their drawbridge. The carriage contains two women: a mother and daughter. The daughter, Carmilla, appears to be stunned by the accident and the mother, who is on a mysterious emergency mission and will be gone for 3 months, cannot take her daughter with her. Laura’s father gallantly offers to let Carmilla stay with them. Big mistake. …
Now let’s back up a bit. Laura had a disturbing dream when she was 6 years old. In the dream a beautiful woman visited her bedside, and guess what, Carmilla is the mirror image of the woman in the dream. Carmilla befriends Laura. A great deal of the suspense comes from us knowing that this is a vampyr story, and we can guess who the vampyr is. Carmilla has strange habits which no one questions. She must sleep alone, she sleeps with her door locked and she avoids prayers (dead giveaway.) Since it’s not hard to guess who the vampyr is here, the suspense comes from Carmilla’s behaviour, her seduction of Laura, and the question of whether this castle of innocents will guess that they harbour a blood-hungry vampyr in their midst? :
Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.
I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. The setting was deliciously creepy, and Lefanu creates a wonderful back drop for this Gothic story. Dracula is depicted, in film at least, as a seducer of women–always sneaking into off-limit bedrooms in the middle of the night. Some readings of Carmilla argue that this is a lesbian vampyr tale. Well young women are afflicted all over the region and are soon dropping like flies.
But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together. Girls are caterpillars when they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are grubs and larvae, don’t you see – each with their peculiar propensities, necessities and structures.