Main Life Works Carmilla Films

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's

            Before reading this page, I think you should read "Carmilla", so click here to do it, or alternatively here. OK, you don't have time now, click here then and you'll read an excerpt of the story. After your reading, remember to go back here.

            "Carmilla" was originally published as a short story in a collection entitled In A Glass Darkly in 1872. The story took place in rural Styria, where Laura, the heroine and narrator, lived. Her father, a retired Austrian civil servant, had been able to purchase an abandoned castle cheaply. Carmilla first appeared in the opening scene of the story as she entered the six-year-old Laura's bed. Laura fell asleep in her arms but suddenly awoke with a sensation of two needles entering her breast. She cried out, and the person Laura described only as "the lady" slipped out of bed onto the floor and disappeared, possibly under the bed. Her nurse and the housekeeper came into the room in response to her cries, but found no one and no marks on her chest.

            Carmilla reappeared when Laura was 19 years old. The carriage in which Carmilla was traveling had a wreck in sight of the castle. Carmilla's mother, in a hurry to reach her destination, left Carmilla at the castle to recover from the accident. When Laura finally met her new guest, she immediately recognized Carmilla as the same person who had visited her 12 years ago, and thus the vampire was loosed again to prey on Laura. Gradually her identity was uncovered. She began to visit Laura in the form of a cat and a female phantom. Laura also noticed that Carmilla looked exactly like the 1698 portrait of Countess Mircalla Karnstein. Through her mother, Laura was a descendent of the Karnsteins.

            At this point, an old friend of the family, General Spielsdorf, arrived at the castle to relate the account of his daughter's death. She had heen wasting away; her condition had no known natural causes. A physician deduced she was the victim of a vampire. The skeptical General waited hidden in his daughter's room and actually caught the vampire, a young woman he knew by the name of Millarca, in the act. He tried to kill her with his sword, but she easily escaped.

            As he finished his account, Carmilla entered. He recognized her as Millarca, but she escaped before they could deal with her. They all then tracked her to the Karnstein castle some three miles away, where they found her resting in her grave. Her body was lifelike, and a faint heartbeat detected. The casket floated in fresh blood. They drove a stake through her heart in reaction to which Carmilla let out a "piercing shriek". They finished their gruesome task by severing her head, burning the body, and scattering the ashes.

            One can see in Le Fanu's tale, which would later be read by Bram Stoker, the progress of the developing vampire myth to that point. People became vampires after committing suicide or following their death if they had been bitten by a vampire during their life. The latter was the cause in Carmilla's case. Le Fanu understood the vampire to be a dead person returned, not a demonic spirit. The returned vampire had a tendency to attack family and loved ones, in this case, a descendent, and was somewhat geographically confined to the area near their grave. And while somewhat pale in complexion, the vampire was quite capable of fitting into society without undue notice. The vampire had two needle-like teeth, but these were not visible at most times. Bites generally occurred on the neck or chest.

            Carmilla had nocturnal habits, but was not totally confined to the darkness. She had superhuman strength and was able to undergo a transformation into various shapes, especially those of animals. Her favorite shape was that of a cat, rather than either a wolf or a bat. She slept in a coffin.

            As would be true in Dracula, the mere bite of the vampire neither turned victims into vampires nor killed them. The vampire fed off the victim over a period of time while the victim slowly withered away. The victim thus fulfilled both the vampire's daily need for blood and its fascination for a particular person whom it chose as its victim.

            As many have noted in discussing Carmilla, her fascination with Laura and the general's daughter, an attachment "resembling the passion of love", has more than passing lesbian overtones. In horror stories, in general, authors have been able to treat sexual themes in ways that would not have been available to them otherwise. Early in the story, for instance, Carmilla began her attack upon Laura by placing her "pretty arms" around her neck, and with her cheek touching Laura's lips, speaking soft seductive words.

            "Carmilla" would directly influence Stoker's presentation of the vampire, especially his treatment of the female vampires who attack Jonathan Harker early in Dracula. In fact, of the vampire tales written in England in the nineteenth century, only "Carmilla" can be said to have had any direct influence in Stoker when he came to write Dracula. James L. Campbell, Sr., writing in Supernatural Fiction Writers, says:

           All of the rituals and set pieces common to the modern formula [for a vampire fiction] appear in "Carmilla", beginning with its three-part formal design: attack, death - resuscitation, and hunt - destruction. Also included are the vampire's seduction of the victim, the confusion between dream and reality, the vain attempt to explain supernatural events in rational terms, and the folk recipes for recognizing, capturing and killing vampires.
            It is not known precisely when Stoker encountered "Carmilla"; his biographers and critics alike seem to take the matter on faith, based on the story's eventual echos on Dracula. Stoker's initial attempts at writing weird fiction must have roughly coincided with Le Fanu's popularity in the early 1870s. Stoker's first horror story, a four-part serial called "The Chain of Destiny", was published in 1875.

©1999 Paco Quilis-Gómez
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