|Author||Sheridan Le Fanu|
|Set in||Styria, 19th century|
|LC Class||PR4879 .L7|
|Text||Carmilla at Wikisource|
Carmilla is an 1872 Gothic novella by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu and one of the early works of vampire fiction, predating Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) by 26 years. First published as a serial in The Dark Blue (1871–72), the story is narrated by a young woman preyed upon by a female vampire named Carmilla, later revealed to be Mircalla, Countess Karnstein (Carmilla is an anagram of Mircalla). The character is a prototypical example of the lesbian vampire, expressing romantic desires toward the protagonist. The novella notably never acknowledges homosexuality as an antagonistic trait, leaving it subtle and morally ambiguous. The story is often anthologised, and has been adapted many times in film and other media.
Carmilla, serialised in the literary magazine The Dark Blue in late 1871 and early 1872, was reprinted in Le Fanu's short-story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). Comparing the work of two illustrators to the story, David Henry Friston, and Michael Fitzgerald, whose work appears in the magazine article, but not in modern printings of the book, reveals inconsistencies in the characters' depictions. Consequently, confusion has arisen relating the pictures to the plot. Isabella Mazzanti illustrated the book's 2014 edition, published by Editions Soleil and translated by Gaid Girard.
Le Fanu presents the story as part of the casebook of Dr. Hesselius, whose departures from medical orthodoxy rank him as the first occult detective in literature.
Laura, the teenaged protagonist, narrates, beginning with her childhood in a "picturesque and solitary" castle amid an extensive forest in Styria, where she lives with her father, a wealthy English widower retired from service to the Austrian Empire. When she was six, Laura had a vision of a very beautiful visitor in her bedchamber. She later claims to have been punctured in her breast, although no wound was found.
Twelve years later, Laura and her father are admiring the sunset in front of the castle when her father tells her of a letter from his friend, General Spielsdorf. The general was supposed to bring his niece, Bertha Rheinfeldt, to visit the two, but the niece suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. The general ambiguously concludes that he will discuss the circumstances in detail when they meet later.
Laura, saddened by the loss of a potential friend, longs for a companion. A carriage accident outside Laura's home unexpectedly brings a girl of Laura's age into the family's care. Her name is Carmilla. Both girls instantly recognise each other from the "dream" they both had when they were young.
Carmilla appears injured after her carriage accident, but her mysterious mother informs Laura's father that her journey is urgent and cannot be delayed. She arranges to leave her daughter with Laura and her father until she can return in three months. Before she leaves, she sternly notes that her daughter will not disclose any information whatsoever about her family, past, or herself, and that Carmilla is of sound mind. Laura comments that this information seems needless to say, and her father laughs it off.
Carmilla and Laura grow to be very close friends, but occasionally Carmilla's mood abruptly changes. She sometimes makes romantic advances towards Laura. Carmilla refuses to tell anything about herself, despite questioning by Laura. Her secrecy is not the only mysterious thing about Carmilla; she never joins the household in its prayers, she sleeps much of the day, and she seems to sleepwalk outside at night.
Meanwhile, young women and girls in the nearby towns have begun dying from an unknown malady. When the funeral procession of one such victim passes by the two girls, Laura joins in the funeral hymn. Carmilla bursts out in rage and scolds Laura, complaining that the hymn hurts her ears.
When a shipment of restored heirloom paintings arrives, Laura finds a portrait of her ancestor, Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, dated 1698. The portrait resembles Carmilla exactly, down to the mole on her neck. Carmilla suggests that she might be descended from the Karnsteins, though the family died out centuries before.
During Carmilla's stay, Laura has nightmares of a large, cat-like beast entering her room. The beast springs onto the bed and Laura feels something like two needles, an inch or two apart, darting deep into her breast. The beast then takes the form of a female figure and disappears through the door without opening it. In another nightmare, Laura hears a voice say, "Your mother warns you to beware of the assassin," and a sudden light reveals Carmilla standing at the foot of her bed, her nightdress drenched in blood. Laura's health declines, and her father has a doctor examine her. He finds a small, blue spot, an inch or two below her collar, where the creature in her dream bit her, and speaks privately with her father, only asking that Laura never be unattended.
Her father then sets out with Laura, in a carriage, for the ruined village of Karnstein, three miles distant. They leave a message behind asking Carmilla and one of the governesses to follow once the perpetually late-sleeping Carmilla awakes. En route to Karnstein, Laura and her father encounter General Spielsdorf. He tells them his own ghastly story:
At a costume ball, Spielsdorf and his niece Bertha had met a very beautiful young woman named Millarca and her enigmatic mother. Bertha was immediately taken with Millarca. The mother convinced the general that she was an old friend of his and asked that Millarca be allowed to stay with them for three weeks while she attended to a secret matter of great importance.
Bertha fell mysteriously ill, suffering the same symptoms as Laura. After consulting with a specially ordered priestly doctor, the general realised that Bertha was being visited by a vampire. He hid with a sword and waited until a large, black creature of undefined shape crawled onto his niece's bed and spread itself onto her throat. He leapt from his hiding place and attacked the creature, which had then taken the form of Millarca. She fled through the locked door, unharmed. Bertha died before the morning dawned.
Upon arriving at Karnstein, the general asks a woodman where he can find the tomb of Mircalla Karnstein. The woodman says the tomb was relocated long ago by the hero, a Moravian nobleman, who vanquished the vampires that haunted the region.
While the general and Laura are alone in the ruined chapel, Carmilla appears. The general and Carmilla both fly into a rage upon seeing each other, and the general attacks her with an axe. Carmilla disarms the general and disappears. The general explains that Carmilla is also Millarca, both anagrams for the original name of the vampire Mircalla, Countess Karnstein.
The party is joined by Baron Vordenburg, the descendant of the hero who rid the area of vampires long ago. Vordenburg, an authority on vampires, has discovered that his ancestor was romantically involved with the Countess Karnstein before she died and became one of the undead. Using his forefather's notes, he locates Mircalla's hidden tomb. An imperial commission exhumes the body of Mircalla/Millarca/Carmilla. Immersed in blood, it seems to be breathing faintly, its heart beating, its eyes open. A stake is driven through its heart, and it gives a corresponding shriek; then, the head is struck off. The body and head are burned to ashes, which are thrown into a river.
Afterwards, Laura's father takes his daughter on a year-long tour through Italy to regain her health and recover from the trauma, which she never fully does.
“Carmilla” exhibits the primary characteristics of Gothic fiction. It includes a supernatural figure, a dark setting of an old castle, a mysterious atmosphere, and ominous or superstitious elements.
In the novella, Le Fanu abolishes the Victorian view of women as merely useful possessions of men, relying on them and needing their constant guardianship. The male characters of the story, such as Laura's father and General Spielsdorf, are exposed as being the opposite of the putative Victorian males – helpless and unproductive. The nameless father reaches an agreement with Carmilla's mother, whereas Spielsdorf cannot control the faith of his daughter, Bertha. Both of these scenes portray women as equal, if not superior to men. This female empowerment is even more threatening to men if we consider Carmilla's vampiric predecessors and their relationship with their prey. Carmilla is the opposite of those male vampires – she is actually involved with her victims both emotionally and (theoretically) sexually. Moreover, she is able to exceed even more limitations by dominating death. In the end, that her immortality is suggested to be sustained by the river where her ashes had been scattered.
Le Fanu also departs from the negative idea of female parasitism and lesbianism by depicting a mutual and irresistible connection between Carmilla and Laura. The latter, along with other female characters, becomes a symbol of all Victorian women – restrained and judged for their emotional reflexes. The ambiguity of Laura's speech and behaviour reveals her struggles with being fully expressive of her concerns and desires.
Another important element of “Carmilla” is the concept of dualism presented through the juxtaposition of vampire and human, as well as lesbian and heterosexual. It is also vivid in Laura's irresolution, since she "feels both attraction and repulsion" towards Carmilla. The duality of Carmilla's character is suggested by her human attributes, the lack of predatory demeanour, and her shared experience with Laura. According to Jönsson, Carmilla can be seen as a representation of the dark side of all mankind.
As with Dracula, critics have looked for the sources used in the writing of Carmilla. One source used was from a dissertation on magic, vampires, and the apparitions of spirits written by Dom Augustin Calmet entitled Traité sur les apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires ou les revenants de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c. (1751). This is evidenced by a report analysed by Calmet, from a priest who learned information of a town being tormented by a vampiric entity three years earlier. Having travelled to the town to investigate and collecting information of the various inhabitants there, the priest learned that a vampire had tormented many of the inhabitants at night by coming from the nearby cemetery and would haunt many of the residents on their beds. An unknown Hungarian traveller came to the town during this period and helped the town by setting a trap at the cemetery and decapitating the vampire that resided there, curing the town of their torment. This story was retold by Le Fanu and adapted into the thirteenth chapter of Carmilla 
According to Matthew Gibson, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-wolves (1863) and his account of Elizabeth Báthory, Coleridge's Christabel (Part 1, 1797 and Part 2, 1800), and Captain Basil Hall's Schloss Hainfeld; or a Winter in Lower Styria (London and Edinburgh, 1836) are other sources for Le Fanu's Carmilla. Hall's account provides much of the Styrian background and, in particular, a model for both Carmilla and Laura in the figure of Jane Anne Cranstoun, Countess Purgstall.
Carmilla, the title character, is the original prototype for a legion of female and lesbian vampires. Although Le Fanu portrays his vampire's sexuality with the circumspection that one would expect for his time, lesbian attraction evidently is the main dynamic between Carmilla and the narrator of the story:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever." (Carmilla, Chapter 4).
When compared to other literary vampires of the 19th century, Carmilla is a similar product of a culture with strict sexual mores and tangible religious fear. While Carmilla selected exclusively female victims, she only becomes emotionally involved with a few. Carmilla had nocturnal habits, but was not confined to the darkness. She had unearthly beauty, and was able to change her form and to pass through solid walls. Her animal alter ego was a monstrous black cat, not a large dog as in Dracula. She did, however, sleep in a coffin. Carmilla works as a Gothic horror story because her victims are portrayed as succumbing to a perverse and unholy temptation that has severe metaphysical consequences for them.
Some critics, among them William Veeder, suggest that Carmilla, notably in its outlandish use of narrative frames, was an important influence on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898).
Although Carmilla is a lesser known and far shorter Gothic vampire story than the generally considered master work of that genre, Dracula, the latter is influenced by Le Fanu's works:
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