Review: Carmilla

Carmilla is a nineteenth-century gothic novella about a girl seduced by a supernatural being. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish author hailed as the Stephen King of his day, published the book in 1871. The novella is famous for introducing several key themes in Western vampire literature (the book heavily influenced Dracula) and for its unique romance.

The book begins with a note from a scientist explaining that the story to follow is a girl's account of her supernatural encounter. The scientist is publishing her account for further research, and is disappointed that he can't contact the girl for additional information (she's dead.) Carmilla is full of this sort of fascinated horror.

A nineteen-year-old girl, Laura, narrates the rest of the book. Laura is of reasonably high birth and lives in an isolated schloss in the Austrian countryside with only her father and attendants for regular company. Laura's loneliness worsens upon hearing that a girl she was planning to meet mysteriously died. She mentions that when she was six, a mysterious woman climbed into Laura's bed and bit her; the event was, in retrospect, obviously a portent of supernatural activity.

Our narrator then fast-forwards thirteen years to the day a carriage accident introduces a mysterious girl named Carmilla into Laura's life. The protagonist is delighted to have someone her age to talk to, despite Carmilla's strange habits and controversial opinions. The two eventually become friends. Soon, local girls and women become ill and die, claiming a dark figure stabbed them at night. Laura falls sick in a similar fashion, seeing shapes visiting her in bed. As her condition worsens, Laura's father meets with a family friend who says his niece died after exposure to a young woman named Mircalla. Eventually Carmilla's true nature is exposed, and she meets a rather violent end.

Despite its classically gothic charm of bloody coffins and churches under the misty moonlight, modern readers may be turned off by the story's predictable plot and heavy dialogue. Astute readers can easily find the many hints suggesting Carmilla's true nature (and may wonder why Laura seems to miss them all!) The story was novel for its time, since before Carmilla vampires were not commonly exposed to the public eye. But the story is terribly predictable, especially if you begin reading knowing how the story unfolds (most readers will.) In this age of True Blood and Twilight where vampires are everywhere in Western culture, is Carmilla worth reading?

I'm usually not a fan of nineteenth-century literature. I find the writing style flowery and vapid at times, the pacing too slow, and wording difficult to understand. But I had none of these grievances with Carmilla. The novella's purpose isn't to mask the nature of its title character, but to intrigue out the reader by detailing the sad little story of a sheltered girl and a jaded (probably lesbian) vampire; accordingly, Le Fanu relies on emotional buildup to generate horror, an enjoyable approach when one is in the mood for it. His descriptions of scenery and people is substantial without slowing down the story too much, and he has excellent command of language. The intimate first-person narrative is a nice touch and adds to the atmosphere. Pacing is a little slow, but each chapter ends with enough suspense to keep the reader interested; if Le Fanu made the story any longer, the concept would be too dragged out.

The characters are well-painted despite the book's short page count. Laura is a sweet and relatively obedient girl, except when it comes to Carmilla, and it seems like she wants to do the right thing. Laura's father is chivalrous and strict but ultimately good-natured like his daughter. The vampire expert, Baron Vordenburg, is intriguing. But the most captivating character is Carmilla herself: creepy, mysterious, intelligent, lonely, and of course extremely attractive. Unlike most other vampires, however, Carmilla's power lies not only in her good looks but also in her social skills which she uses to worm her way into the lives of young girls. Her shrewd intelligence is refreshing.

The only good picture of the story I've seen. Nice moustache, Laura's Dad.
Unfortunately, the novella's brevity limits our knowledge about its characters. Laura's fate is unknown: we only know that she dies eventually, with Carmilla's memory haunting her. The vampire expert Baron Vordenburg is intriguing, but he gets very little screen-time. And Carmilla is the most frustrating. Why does she feed on so many girls in one area, knowing that would fatally raise suspicion? It's possible that she's a tortured soul seeking rest, has an insatiable thirst for blood, or is simply lonely. Perhaps Carmilla falls for Laura and preys on nearby targets to keep Laura alive, knowing her own end is near. Until then Carmilla declares that she "lives in [Laura's] warm life, and [Laura] shall die—die, sweetly die—into [hers]."

The aforementioned relationship is the most compelling part of the novella. It's unknown what exactly draws Carmilla to Laura, but at any rate Carmilla tells her when they meet as teens, "it does seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be friends." More like girlfriends judging from the adoring speeches, romantic walks, magnetic attraction, and late-night bedroom visits that ensue. Laura is both drawn to and repulsed by Carmilla, but "the sense of attraction immensely [prevails.]" Even as the latter girl's quirks and dangerous attributes begin to surface, Laura holds on to Carmilla to stave off loneliness. Both girls do seem quite starved for company their own age, lending a quiet desperation to their relationship. Laura's first-person narration captures the situation well with all its confusion and horror.

Overall, Carmilla is delightfully creepy and well-written. I recommend it for vampire-lovers, anyone who enjoys solid nineteenth-century literature, and fans of unconventional love stories. You can read it in one go at Project Gutenberg.


  1. That's not Laura's father but the general whose name I forgot. You can see the blade in his hand.

    1. Oh it's Baron Vordenburg? Thanks for the tip, I'll change that.


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