REVIEW: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla cover art

But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.

I want to say that this book was charming, but that is not quite right. Instead, I will say that I was charmed by it. Carmilla predates Dracula by some years, and as a fan of vampires in general I am always pleased to read works that do not skulk in the considerable shadow cast by Bram Stoker’s novel.

Carmilla is a short novel, some hundred pages, but I was forced to read slowly due to the language, which was beautiful but tricky (quite a few words have changed their meanings since this book was written). It uses an ‘I addressing you’ style of prose that is not fashionable at the moment, but that has the interesting effect of placing the reader directly into the story; it made me feel as though I was an acquaintance of the protagonist hearing the story directly from her. As if maybe she was my pen-pal.

The protagonist is never named within the novel, although on the inner flap she is called Laura. Except for Carmilla, I have for the most part forgotten names. The characters in this book were often subsumed by the scenery; this wasn’t a bad thing, as Le Fanu has considerable talent at using scenery to set the tone. I was instantly drawn in by descriptions of the lonely schloss surrounded by forests, the abandoned villages and crumbling buildings, the dark moat befriended only by lilies… The characters were not unmemorable or half-formed, merely part of the landscape in a way that felt totally natural, and which enabled them to be grotesque or beautiful in almost unworldly ways.

Although delivered in difficult language, the story itself is a common one; an isolated young person longs for a companion, and is granted one in unusual circumstances. This companion then turns out to be more than they seem. What is wonderful about this story is how slowly and steadily it moves, dreamlike, so that the horror of the tale is almost unexpected and remains strangely muted right through to the end.

The meat of the story is the relationship between Carmilla and Laura, which is complex to say the least. Carmilla often seems vulnerable; indeed, Laura believes her to be an invalid of some sort. They build a friendship, though from a modern perspective it can be read as something deeper than that, at least on Carmilla’s side. Laura is charmed and perplexed by turns, haunted by fears that she does not understand but that turn out to be valid, and she never fully reconciles the Carmilla who nearly killed her with the friend that she had.

Although dated in many ways (I struggled to stomach the way that Laura’s father and doctor actively kept her in the dark about what her ‘illness’ was, among other things), I really enjoyed reading this book, and I think that its particular manner of quiet horror and suspense has a lot to offer.

I loved that I was given an insight into Carmilla’s life pre-vampire, however tiny it was; the new perspective was a surprising touch and it added a sense of history impacting on the present. The structure of the story was also really pleasing, with fore-shadowing and post-shadowing until I felt a little like I was lost in mirrors, not sure of reality (this was a subtle effect). It also tipped the fairytale convention of beautiful=good and ugly=evil on its side more than once, and has one of the best final sentences that I have ever read. Certainly a valuable part of the horror/suspense/gothic genre.

 

As a note, if we take the whole blood-sucking vampire thing as a metaphor for sex/sexuality, it would be possible to write several essays on the attitude to female sexuality shown here; I’m really trying not to do that, but it would be interesting. Carmilla can be read as ‘deranged female lust’ and Laura as the celebrated ‘passive participant’. There were moments when I just had this image of Le Fanu with his hands in the air, addressing a scandalised public, saying something like: ‘But they’re not actually lesbians because one of them is an unholy, bloodsucking creature of the night. Therefore, it doesn’t count. Also, vampires (women?) are totally incapable of love. It just comes across as being in love, but they’re only after blood.’ Anyhow, if you read it, I’d love to know what you think.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alysha Kaye
    Dec 31, 2014 @ 17:08:24

    Great post, and interesting essay topic…I think that metaphor definitely works. Now I want to read your potential essay more than I want to read this novel, haha.
    Hope you check out my debut- THE WAITING ROOM:)

    Reply

    • Meredith
      Jan 03, 2015 @ 19:51:17

      Thanks! I’m not sure if I will ever write that essay, but if I do I’ll make sure you hear about it 😀 Congrats on your debut – I’m horribly skint post-Christmas but I’ll see if I can find it.

      Reply

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