Book Review – Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

books, reviews

29606979 5_star_rating_system_4_stars1 I’m getting a bit worried that I’m not going to finish my current read in time to write my Wednesday post. I’ve already got a short audiobook ready in case I need to shove an extra one in somewhere. It all depends on tonight. Thankfully, I still managed to get my weekly audiobook finished in time. I can’t remember who first recommended Carmilla to me but it was definitely something that came out of  Instagram. I think I was having a rant about how bored I was with vampire fiction. Over the years, vampires have lost their bite so I tend to ignore them. I’d never tried to read Carmilla though. I know that it was the inspiration for Dracula and one of the earliest vampire stories ever written. But if we go into that too much I’ll probably just start banging on about John Polidori again. And nobody wants that.

You have to wonder how insecure a man has to be before he decides to write a novel about an evil lesbian vampire. How pathetic society has to be to equate lesbianism with evil? But that’s certainly a couple of the questions that come out of J. Sheridan’s Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Although, to the people of 1872 it’s perfectly normal. None of the female protagonists of gothic romances ever really faired well but there is always something way more predatory about female antagonists than males. For some reason, a creepy uncle trying to rape his niece is much more acceptable than a woman trying to seduce her. But, then again, this is a man’s world.

Carmilla is written from the point of view of Laura who, in the gothic tradition, has lost her mother. She lives with her father who dotes on her. When a mysterious woman and her daughter, Carmilla, have an accident near their house, Laura’s father agrees to let Carmilla stay with them. Carmilla and Laura become firm friends but begin to freak out about the number of rumours about vampires in the area. When Laura starts to have strange dreams and notices small puncture holes in her chest, her family are, understandably worried about her. Laura is just worried about Carmilla. But why does her new friend keep disappearing at night and how does Laura’s story connect to the recent death of her friend?

I have to admit, I’m not a massive of the framing narrative here. The book is presented as part of the casebook of Dr Hesselius, a doctor who is interested in researching the occult. Laura is his patient and he presents her account as evidence for the existence of vampires. This type of narrative has always been quite popular but especially in this period. It was all about creating a sense of realism and authority within the novel. Really it doesn’t add anything to the novel and only gave David Tennant more chance to do his dodgy accent in the dramatisation. But the story as a whole is well-written and the narrative moves along at a pretty good pace. It’s a quick read, which is unusual for early gothic fiction, and it’s really engaging.

Carmilla is a fairly traditional gothic romance and the writing is often lyrical and very descriptive. There are plenty of locked doors, crumbling castles, and mysterious figures to increase the tension. It’s just that this time, instead of the dark and handsome man, Laura is being terrorised by a saucy temptress. Carmilla goes after female victims to feed on but she also romantically targets several young women in an attempt to find a companion for eternity. Her treatment of Laura is incredibly creepy and predatory. She touches her inappropriately, showers her with kisses, and talks of how much she loves her. Laura, for her part, can’t resist temptation but she knows that it’s wrong. This all speaks to the huge fear surround homosexuality at the time. We are supposed to see Carmilla’s actions as evil and Laura’s inevitable decline in health is a result of her descent into sin.

Carmilla is a really atmospheric read and the scenes in which Laura is being targeted by the vampire are fantastic. It’s creepy and strange. There is a genuine tension as the novel goes on and leading the final showdown. It works within the gothic tradition but it is very to the point. The book doesn’t exactly race through the story but it is certainly keen to get to where it’s going. It means that the tension remains throughout. You can really see how this novel might have inspired Dracula because it is a genuinely gripping and engaging read. Although, it’s difficult to read it from the same perspective as our 1872 counterparts had. I realise that we’re supposed to hate Carmilla but, aside from all the killing, she’s not that bad. Just a little randy I guess.

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