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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No sacrifice without blood
The vampire has always been used to convey sexuality -- and one of the earliest ones, the title character of "Carmilla," is no exception. Years before Bram Stoker ever dreamed of Dracula. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wove together a luscious, haunting gothic mystery that centers around a lovely, immortal young woman with a taste for blood.

When a mysterious carriage...
Published on 16 Jun. 2010 by E. A Solinas

versus
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Horrible
No page numbers, no blurb. Text is horribly formatted. Horrible font. This is not something you want on your shelf.
Published 12 months ago by Niall Cunniffe


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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No sacrifice without blood, 16 Jun. 2010
By 
E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Carmilla (Paperback)
The vampire has always been used to convey sexuality -- and one of the earliest ones, the title character of "Carmilla," is no exception. Years before Bram Stoker ever dreamed of Dracula. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wove together a luscious, haunting gothic mystery that centers around a lovely, immortal young woman with a taste for blood.

When a mysterious carriage crashes at their schloss, Laura's father offers to take care of a young lady named Carmilla, who has been stunned by the collision. Laura herself is struck by how similar the girl looks to a strange figure that visited her as a child -- and Carmilla claims that they've had some sort of mutual vision of one another.

Even more striking, Carmilla immediately becomes VERY attached to Laura ("You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever"), and Laura is strangely entranced by Carmilla's speech.

As the days go by, Laura is increasingly bespelled by Carmilla, despite the young woman's strange behavior (and her weird resemblance to an ancient painting in the schloss, of a woman named Mircalla -- get it?), and is becoming increasingly ill and nervous. But when they visit an old friend, he reveals the shocking truth about Carmilla's true nature... and what she will do to Laura.

"Carmilla" is a true gothic novel in the best sense of the word -- a lushly-written little novella filled with ruined palaces, abandoned villages, moonlight and blood. And Le Fanu injects a not-so-subtle lesbian subtext into the story, since Carmilla seems to be as infatuated with Laura as she is hungry for her blood. Lots of kisses, adoring speeches, and Carmilla constantly creeping into Laura's bedroom.

And Le Fanu's writing is utterly exquisite. He swathes this eerie little story in a ghostly wrap of lush writing ("Over the sward and low grounds a thin film of mist was stealing like smoke, marking the distances with a transparent veil") and some deeply creepy moments, such as Laura waking to see Carmilla covered in blood.

Le Fanu also sketches out his characters quickly and effectively, despite the novella's brevity. Laura is a sweet ordinary girl who seems both weirded out and entranced by Carmilla, and Carmilla herself is a larger-than-life character -- sensual, obsessive, vibrantly erotic and extremely creepy, except when she goes off on crazy rants about how much she hates hymns and funerals.

Stoker brought the vampire into the limelight, but "Carmilla" seductively introduced the vampire's eerie allure long before that. Luscious and eerie.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Always A Classic, 12 Feb. 2011
By 
M. Dowden (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Carmilla (Kindle Edition)
I never get tired of this tale, so I was glad to see that it was available on kindle for free. If you are into vampire fiction then you have surely read this before, if not many times. First published in 1872, this tale was more influential upon Dracula than any other.

The story is told us from the perspective of Laura, who lives with her father in a schloss in Styria. At six she had what others attributed a nightmare, but she thinks was a real occurence. Jump forward to Laura at nineteen, when she meets Carmilla.

Although this is a vampire tale there is a strong lesbian theme between the two young ladies, although this isn't overt and is fitting with the time it was written. Usually overshadowed by Dracula these days this is really a tale that is a classic in its own rights.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Short, but a fun read!, 3 Feb. 2009
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This review is from: Carmilla (Paperback)
Where do I start wit this little story? Well first of all as the blurb suggests, this story is about a young girl of seemingly aristocratic standing living with her father within his Eastern European country manor. Things go well until the mysterious arrival of a sickly young woman named Carmilla, for whom whose care is thrust upon the father/daughter duo by the stranger's apparently caretaker. No sooner was this done do the two girl become friends, albeit with a sinister almost sexual predation underlining it. And that is when things get interesting..

Now, some of you are no doubt curious as to what that last sentence meant. Basically without meaning to spoil the story, Carmilla herself is a sort of vampiric were-creature that has a tendency to befriend and eventually feed off delightful young girls such as the heroine of the story. Although for the time the author probably couldn't afford to be overt about his intentions for the characters relationships, there is none the less a very strong innuendo that suggest that their friendship goes a little beyond platonic. This makes for an interesting character dynamic, as much like Dracula was written after it, the story itself is told in a diary like narrative. You gain the impression that although the heroine was disturbed by her experiences, she none the less still held a deep fascination for Carmilla. I presume this was to make up for the fact that due to the heroines elevated social status she was to a large extent isolated and alone, thus yearned for the sort of companionship Carmilla provided.

As for the writing style of the book, I found it surprisingly accessible for a book written so long ago. Although I occasionally sniggered at the quaint descriptions given to otherwise mundane topics i.e. "we went to sit upon a rude bench", overall you will find the autobiographical nature of the book to be easy to follow.

Ultimately this is a fun little book that reads much like a detective horror story. Although not as in depth and sophisticated as Dracula it is none the less a good insight into how the modern romanticized vampires came to be.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars greatest vampire story, 25 May 2010
By 
This review is from: Carmilla (Paperback)
Carmilla is a novella by Sheridan Le Fanu. It is the finest vampire story in literature. Le Fanu's language is exquisite and his tone throughout the whole story is perfectly pitched. This is a perfect little gem. Within its own terms it is simply perfection. I urge you to read it and share my joy in this little masterpiece.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Influential vampire story, 5 Jun. 2011
By 
Michael Finn (Blackburn, Lancashire, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Carmilla (Paperback)
First published in 1872, Carmilla is a hugely influential vampire story told by a young girl called Laura, starved of the company of children her own age. After a coach crash not far from her castle home in Styria, her family agree to look after another young girl called Carmilla for a period of some months. Laura recognises the girl at once from a disturbing dream from years earlier. And Carmilla admits to having the same dream. In the nearby village the deaths begin.
The enduring literary emblem of the vampire was born when Bram Stoker gave the world Dracula in the last years of the 19th Century, birthed by a century obsessed by the Gothic imagery associated with the darker shadows of folklore and mythology. From the scatological excesses of penny dreadfuls like Varney the Vampyre, the crafted prose of Le Fanu's Carmilla and the like, the groundwork was already laid. Without one or the other of these two mismatched parents Stoker's Dracula would never have entered its creator's brain. But unlike Varney and other Victorian age vampires Carmilla survived to influence horror films and fiction beyond Stoker's famous Count. The 1960s and 1970s was awash with lurid adaptations of the Karnstein saga. If you have any interest at all in the history and development of vampire fiction or you just like well written Gothic fiction you should definitely give this a look. It's a short read and Le Fanu's prose is lighter and more accessible than some of his other works. I think it is one of his finest works
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic vampire fiction, 25 July 2009
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This review is from: Carmilla (Dodo Press) (Paperback)
Carmilla, the lesbian were-vampire; it sounds like a bad b-movie or the storyline from a pulp fiction novel. (I think Hammer did make a trilogy in the '70's loosely based on the story. I haven't seen them.) However, Carmilla was published in 1872, twenty-five years before Dracula appeared in print, and in my opinion is far superior to it.

The novel is set in Austria, where the narrator, Laura, lives a lonely life with her English father, nursemaid and governess. Their nearest neighbours are General Spielsdorf and his niece, Bertha; in-between is a ruined castle and deserted village. Laura has yet to be introduced to the latter, and she hopes that they will become friends. However, her hopes are dashed when her father receives a letter from the General, informing them that the young woman has died in mysterious and distressing circumstances. That evening, Carmilla (literally) comes crashing into her life when the carriage she is travelling in overturns in front of their castle. They are manipulated into offering the young woman a place to stay, because her "mother", who is in a great hurry, must go on and leave her behind to recuperate, but there is no inn in the area. Soon afterwards, young women in the locality begin to die in strange circumstances...

The story contains many of the familiar motifs that you might expect to find in vampire story, but it is far from dull. Le Fanu, perhaps better known for his detective stories has quite a subtle style of writing, relying on tone and effect to set the scene, rather than sensationalism. Carmilla's lesbianism is handled quite deftly, and sometimes to comic effect: Laura, who is quite innocent, and unused to Carmilla's overtures, wonders if her friend might be a man in disguise, but she dismisses the notion, because Carmilla is so frail and feminine-looking.

It's hard to know why Dracula, and not Carmilla, has enjoyed such notoriety. Perhaps Stoker's gentleman vampire is more socially acceptable kind of monster? I don't know, but for me there is something far more sinister about a sweet-looking, charming young woman who insinuates herself into her victims lives, and sneaks into their rooms at night to suck their blood. Dracula, by comparison, reads like fairytale, and is hardly likely to bring on nightmares. (Interestly enough, Puffin, who publish children's classics, have released a version of Dracula.) I highly recommend it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Vampire Not for the Twilight-Hearted, 31 Jan. 2012
This review is from: Carmilla (Paperback)
Surely the Dracula before Dracula, Carmilla is as shocking for its gory gothic horror and psychological drama as it is for its avant garde content. The characterisation of our leading antagonist is that of a young girl who is blatantly lesbian, a trait which must certainly have shocked and disturbed the author's contemporary readership. However, the mysterious Carmilla can still shock and disturb today's readers just as easily and provides a welcome antidote to the benevolent, romantic vamps of the Twilight generation.
The story begins with our Narrator, Laura (a poetically novel name for the object of our villainess' affection), assuring the reader that her story is true;it has been left as part of a manuscript to the unknown publisher of the documents. Laura tells us of her childhood dream of a woman sneaking into her room and into her bed before feeling a sharp sting in her chest. She fast forwards to when she is nineteen and after an accident meets a girl who is, in effect, the woman of her dreams. This alone should wake the reader into the knowledge that this is to be a truly sinister tale of a monster that stalks its (largely female) prey with a hinted penchant for paedophilia!
As the tale continues we learn more and more about Carmilla: She hates traditional funeral rites, she has an underlying violent temper, she `sleepwalks', she may be related to an extinct aristocratic family, but most disturbingly, she is highly possessive of the narrator , often speaking to and caressing her "with the ardour of a lover". Frustratingly, Laura does very little to deter Carmilla's advances and even seems to reciprocate.
Carmilla's true nature is revealed in the second half of the text when we discover Laura's father is not the first to have their hospitality and young charge taken advantage of. All the clues become as clear to our protagonists as they have been to us for most of the text. While this might suggest the text to appear dated in a culture where we are so used to the vampire narrative, there is, as previously stated, plenty to disturb and peak the interest even the most ardent and well-read of vamp fans.
Though overshadowed by the later and more well-known Count Dracula, Carmilla is an equally intriguing and mysterious figure, with her multiple aliases and the coven which appears to be her family: A mother who gives the initial orders to whomever is to care for their `daughter', a sinister old woman who never leaves the overturned carriage after the accident which introduces our antagonist, and a tall, gaunt monster of a servant. Though loosely constucted, they provide a chiiling backdrop to Carmilla's persona.
As the first definitive female vampire in literature, it's worthwhile reading particularly if you have read the Dracula sequel by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, though I would have preferred this edition to provide a bit more history or literary background. For those whom this would interest(ie anoracks for this stuff like me) I would suggest a student edition. Having said all this, for the average horror fan this is as gory and chilling as all good gothic horror stories should be providing a psychological chill to match Hannibal Lecter any day. Twi-Hards beware: The Vamp's got its fangs back!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lady is a Vamp, 27 Dec. 2013
By 
Sam Quixote - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
Set in 19th century Austria, Laura is a lonely young woman living with her father and their two servants in the Styrian countryside until one fateful night when she and her father encounter a mysterious stagecoach barrelling through the forest near their house. Rather rashly, her father agrees to let the sickly young woman inside stay in their house while her strange mother continue on her journey. And then people in the surrounding area start dying of an unknown disease and the peasants start muttering about an "oupire". Who, or what, is Laura's new friend, Carmilla, really - and will she survive the encounter long enough to find out?

Nowadays vampires are so prevalent in popular culture, nearly everyone knows about them. Their traits, their behaviours, every aspect of the vampire is so well defined that this Victorian story can seem quaint in the way it plays up the mystery of Carmilla. But when J. Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla was published in 1872 (the year before the author's death), the vampire was a relatively unknown creature in popular culture. John Polidori's short story The Vampyre had been published to some success a few decades earlier and the pulpy Varney the Vampire had been a popular series, but Bram Stoker's Dracula, the most famous vampire novel ever written and the book that would launch vampires permanently into the mainstream, wouldn't appear for another 25 years.

In fact, Carmilla is credited by Stoker as an influence in the creation of his novel, and it's easy to see why. The fangs and nightly blood-sucking, sleeping in a coffin in a ruined chapel, the associations of vampires with nobility, the ability for vampires to transform into animals, the aversion to Christianity, eternal life and youth, and the strong ties between vampires and sexuality all appear in Carmilla. Perhaps the reason why Carmilla wasn't the success that Dracula was lies in its female protagonist and her relationship with the female vampire that Le Fanu implies went beyond mere friendship.

The story opens when 6 year old Laura meets the beautiful young woman Carmilla, whom she doesn't know by name yet, but who appears in her room nightly to drink her blood. When her nursemaid acts on her suspicions, a ritual from a priest is performed and Laura is no longer visited by the vampire. But years later, when our story takes place and Laura is 19, Carmilla re-enters her life, and Laura recognises her as the youthful visitor who used to bite her breast as a child - though she seems to have no trouble accepting that Carmilla hasn't aged in 13 years! Instead, Laura's feelings confuse her as she is both drawn to and repulsed by her though describes Carmilla as beautiful. Later, when the two are alone in Carmilla's bedroom, she makes a move on Laura, kissing her and drawing close to her, talking intensely and unequivocally about how Laura belongs to her.

In this sense, Carmilla is a surprisingly un-Victorian story as it's basically a lesbian vampire story! You could take this idea further still - if you interpret vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality, you might even read the subtext of Carmilla's speech to Laura's father, explaining this "disease", meaning vampires, as a sexually progressive argument:

"`Creator! Nature!' said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. `And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature - don't they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so,'" (p.39)

Besides the sexual undertones of the story, there are a number of memorable scenes that stand out for their rich, gothic imagery. Ruined chapels, castles with drawbridges, haunting forests with crumbling Christian totems, all bathed in a twilit glow and set against the schloss and background of the 19th century Austrian countryside. Le Fanu continues to hint at Carmilla's true identity, though to modern audiences, it's either known before you pick up the book what's what, or you've guessed it within Carmilla's first appearance. Nonetheless, there are a number of interesting scenes that will become classic staples of vampire fiction such as Laura looking at a painting from 1698 (150 years before this story is set) of a noblewoman called Mircalla who looks identical to Carmilla (and whose name nobody seems to notice is an anagram of Carmilla) strongly implying Carmilla's immortality, or the image of Carmilla drenched in blood and standing at the foot of Laura's bed when she awakens in the middle of the night!

By far my favourite scene was Carmilla's entrance where a blighted carriage rumbles precariously through the moonlit forest path, nearly toppling at the sight of an ancient Christian cross as its horses react violently to the religious symbol. Laura watches as her father approaches and before long Carmilla emerges to go back with them. Meanwhile, Laura observes inside the carriage the "hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head" who is presumably Carmilla's mother, if not guardian, who nods and grins derisively at her with "gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury". And the carriagemen, described as "ugly hang-dog-looking fellows" - couple this ghoulish group with Carmilla and it's like the carriage was regurgitated from Hell itself!

Not every aspect of the modern vampire mythos is laid out here - Carmilla walks about in daylight and can see her reflection in the mirror, while the creation of a vampire is rather glibly described by Le Fanu as someone evil who kills themselves, and somehow becomes a vampire. They then feed on others, draining the blood of their victims until they die and then rise from the grave, vampires themselves. The second part was used in Dracula and kind of makes sense in a parasitic way but the original vampire creation is very weak.

If Le Fanu's story is unconventional for its time, his writing is unfortunately all too similar to his Victorian contemporaries. Overwritten scenes, overwrought dialogue, overly proper behaviour all make this book a rather slow read even though it's barely 100 pages long and its predictability too doesn't help. However, Carmilla has remained in print at least in part because it's an original and striking story whose titular character would go on to influence numerous horror writers to create their own female vampires in her mould. The imagery and the vampiric scenes do still retain their ability to mesmerise modern audiences, and for fans of the literary sub-genre of vampire fiction, it's worth reading Carmilla to see where a number of tropes and stock characters originated, in particular the Van Helsing figure in this book, General Spielsdorf.

There's certainly more than enough here to warrant the classic label it's earned since it was first published, and it's story is a lot more interesting than many other classics too! So, if you're feeling sinister, take a trip to Styria and meet the eternally youthful Carmilla - she'll never let you leave!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lady is a Vamp, 27 Dec. 2013
By 
Sam Quixote - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Carmilla (Paperback)
Set in 19th century Austria, Laura is a lonely young woman living with her father and their two servants in the Styrian countryside until one fateful night when she and her father encounter a mysterious stagecoach barrelling through the forest near their house. Rather rashly, her father agrees to let the sickly young woman inside stay in their house while her strange mother continue on her journey. And then people in the surrounding area start dying of an unknown disease and the peasants start muttering about an "oupire". Who, or what, is Laura's new friend, Carmilla, really - and will she survive the encounter long enough to find out?

Nowadays vampires are so prevalent in popular culture, nearly everyone knows about them. Their traits, their behaviours, every aspect of the vampire is so well defined that this Victorian story can seem quaint in the way it plays up the mystery of Carmilla. But when J. Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla was published in 1872 (the year before the author's death), the vampire was a relatively unknown creature in popular culture. John Polidori's short story The Vampyre had been published to some success a few decades earlier and the pulpy Varney the Vampire had been a popular series, but Bram Stoker's Dracula, the most famous vampire novel ever written and the book that would launch vampires permanently into the mainstream, wouldn't appear for another 25 years.

In fact, Carmilla is credited by Stoker as an influence in the creation of his novel, and it's easy to see why. The fangs and nightly blood-sucking, sleeping in a coffin in a ruined chapel, the associations of vampires with nobility, the ability for vampires to transform into animals, the aversion to Christianity, eternal life and youth, and the strong ties between vampires and sexuality all appear in Carmilla. Perhaps the reason why Carmilla wasn't the success that Dracula was lies in its female protagonist and her relationship with the female vampire that Le Fanu implies went beyond mere friendship.

The story opens when 6 year old Laura meets the beautiful young woman Carmilla, whom she doesn't know by name yet, but who appears in her room nightly to drink her blood. When her nursemaid acts on her suspicions, a ritual from a priest is performed and Laura is no longer visited by the vampire. But years later, when our story takes place and Laura is 19, Carmilla re-enters her life, and Laura recognises her as the youthful visitor who used to bite her breast as a child - though she seems to have no trouble accepting that Carmilla hasn't aged in 13 years! Instead, Laura's feelings confuse her as she is both drawn to and repulsed by her though describes Carmilla as beautiful. Later, when the two are alone in Carmilla's bedroom, she makes a move on Laura, kissing her and drawing close to her, talking intensely and unequivocally about how Laura belongs to her.

In this sense, Carmilla is a surprisingly un-Victorian story as it's basically a lesbian vampire story! You could take this idea further still - if you interpret vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality, you might even read the subtext of Carmilla's speech to Laura's father, explaining this "disease", meaning vampires, as a sexually progressive argument:

"`Creator! Nature!' said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. `And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature - don't they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so,'" (p.39)

Besides the sexual undertones of the story, there are a number of memorable scenes that stand out for their rich, gothic imagery. Ruined chapels, castles with drawbridges, haunting forests with crumbling Christian totems, all bathed in a twilit glow and set against the schloss and background of the 19th century Austrian countryside. Le Fanu continues to hint at Carmilla's true identity, though to modern audiences, it's either known before you pick up the book what's what, or you've guessed it within Carmilla's first appearance. Nonetheless, there are a number of interesting scenes that will become classic staples of vampire fiction such as Laura looking at a painting from 1698 (150 years before this story is set) of a noblewoman called Mircalla who looks identical to Carmilla (and whose name nobody seems to notice is an anagram of Carmilla) strongly implying Carmilla's immortality, or the image of Carmilla drenched in blood and standing at the foot of Laura's bed when she awakens in the middle of the night!

By far my favourite scene was Carmilla's entrance where a blighted carriage rumbles precariously through the moonlit forest path, nearly toppling at the sight of an ancient Christian cross as its horses react violently to the religious symbol. Laura watches as her father approaches and before long Carmilla emerges to go back with them. Meanwhile, Laura observes inside the carriage the "hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head" who is presumably Carmilla's mother, if not guardian, who nods and grins derisively at her with "gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury". And the carriagemen, described as "ugly hang-dog-looking fellows" - couple this ghoulish group with Carmilla and it's like the carriage was regurgitated from Hell itself!

Not every aspect of the modern vampire mythos is laid out here - Carmilla walks about in daylight and can see her reflection in the mirror, while the creation of a vampire is rather glibly described by Le Fanu as someone evil who kills themselves, and somehow becomes a vampire. They then feed on others, draining the blood of their victims until they die and then rise from the grave, vampires themselves. The second part was used in Dracula and kind of makes sense in a parasitic way but the original vampire creation is very weak.

If Le Fanu's story is unconventional for its time, his writing is unfortunately all too similar to his Victorian contemporaries. Overwritten scenes, overwrought dialogue, overly proper behaviour all make this book a rather slow read even though it's barely 100 pages long and its predictability too doesn't help. However, Carmilla has remained in print at least in part because it's an original and striking story whose titular character would go on to influence numerous horror writers to create their own female vampires in her mould. The imagery and the vampiric scenes do still retain their ability to mesmerise modern audiences, and for fans of the literary sub-genre of vampire fiction, it's worth reading Carmilla to see where a number of tropes and stock characters originated, in particular the Van Helsing figure in this book, General Spielsdorf.

There's certainly more than enough here to warrant the classic label it's earned since it was first published, and it's story is a lot more interesting than many other classics too! So, if you're feeling sinister, take a trip to Styria and meet the eternally youthful Carmilla - she'll never let you leave!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lady is a Vamp, 27 Dec. 2013
By 
Sam Quixote - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
Set in 19th century Austria, Laura is a lonely young woman living with her father and their two servants in the Styrian countryside until one fateful night when she and her father encounter a mysterious stagecoach barrelling through the forest near their house. Rather rashly, her father agrees to let the sickly young woman inside stay in their house while her strange mother continue on her journey. And then people in the surrounding area start dying of an unknown disease and the peasants start muttering about an "oupire". Who, or what, is Laura's new friend, Carmilla, really - and will she survive the encounter long enough to find out?

Nowadays vampires are so prevalent in popular culture, nearly everyone knows about them. Their traits, their behaviours, every aspect of the vampire is so well defined that this Victorian story can seem quaint in the way it plays up the mystery of Carmilla. But when J. Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla was published in 1872 (the year before the author's death), the vampire was a relatively unknown creature in popular culture. John Polidori's short story The Vampyre had been published to some success a few decades earlier and the pulpy Varney the Vampire had been a popular series, but Bram Stoker's Dracula, the most famous vampire novel ever written and the book that would launch vampires permanently into the mainstream, wouldn't appear for another 25 years.

In fact, Carmilla is credited by Stoker as an influence in the creation of his novel, and it's easy to see why. The fangs and nightly blood-sucking, sleeping in a coffin in a ruined chapel, the associations of vampires with nobility, the ability for vampires to transform into animals, the aversion to Christianity, eternal life and youth, and the strong ties between vampires and sexuality all appear in Carmilla. Perhaps the reason why Carmilla wasn't the success that Dracula was lies in its female protagonist and her relationship with the female vampire that Le Fanu implies went beyond mere friendship.

The story opens when 6 year old Laura meets the beautiful young woman Carmilla, whom she doesn't know by name yet, but who appears in her room nightly to drink her blood. When her nursemaid acts on her suspicions, a ritual from a priest is performed and Laura is no longer visited by the vampire. But years later, when our story takes place and Laura is 19, Carmilla re-enters her life, and Laura recognises her as the youthful visitor who used to bite her breast as a child - though she seems to have no trouble accepting that Carmilla hasn't aged in 13 years! Instead, Laura's feelings confuse her as she is both drawn to and repulsed by her though describes Carmilla as beautiful. Later, when the two are alone in Carmilla's bedroom, she makes a move on Laura, kissing her and drawing close to her, talking intensely and unequivocally about how Laura belongs to her.

In this sense, Carmilla is a surprisingly un-Victorian story as it's basically a lesbian vampire story! You could take this idea further still - if you interpret vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality, you might even read the subtext of Carmilla's speech to Laura's father, explaining this "disease", meaning vampires, as a sexually progressive argument:

"`Creator! Nature!' said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. `And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature - don't they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so,'" (p.39)

Besides the sexual undertones of the story, there are a number of memorable scenes that stand out for their rich, gothic imagery. Ruined chapels, castles with drawbridges, haunting forests with crumbling Christian totems, all bathed in a twilit glow and set against the schloss and background of the 19th century Austrian countryside. Le Fanu continues to hint at Carmilla's true identity, though to modern audiences, it's either known before you pick up the book what's what, or you've guessed it within Carmilla's first appearance. Nonetheless, there are a number of interesting scenes that will become classic staples of vampire fiction such as Laura looking at a painting from 1698 (150 years before this story is set) of a noblewoman called Mircalla who looks identical to Carmilla (and whose name nobody seems to notice is an anagram of Carmilla) strongly implying Carmilla's immortality, or the image of Carmilla drenched in blood and standing at the foot of Laura's bed when she awakens in the middle of the night!

By far my favourite scene was Carmilla's entrance where a blighted carriage rumbles precariously through the moonlit forest path, nearly toppling at the sight of an ancient Christian cross as its horses react violently to the religious symbol. Laura watches as her father approaches and before long Carmilla emerges to go back with them. Meanwhile, Laura observes inside the carriage the "hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head" who is presumably Carmilla's mother, if not guardian, who nods and grins derisively at her with "gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury". And the carriagemen, described as "ugly hang-dog-looking fellows" - couple this ghoulish group with Carmilla and it's like the carriage was regurgitated from Hell itself!

Not every aspect of the modern vampire mythos is laid out here - Carmilla walks about in daylight and can see her reflection in the mirror, while the creation of a vampire is rather glibly described by Le Fanu as someone evil who kills themselves, and somehow becomes a vampire. They then feed on others, draining the blood of their victims until they die and then rise from the grave, vampires themselves. The second part was used in Dracula and kind of makes sense in a parasitic way but the original vampire creation is very weak.

If Le Fanu's story is unconventional for its time, his writing is unfortunately all too similar to his Victorian contemporaries. Overwritten scenes, overwrought dialogue, overly proper behaviour all make this book a rather slow read even though it's barely 100 pages long and its predictability too doesn't help. However, Carmilla has remained in print at least in part because it's an original and striking story whose titular character would go on to influence numerous horror writers to create their own female vampires in her mould. The imagery and the vampiric scenes do still retain their ability to mesmerise modern audiences, and for fans of the literary sub-genre of vampire fiction, it's worth reading Carmilla to see where a number of tropes and stock characters originated, in particular the Van Helsing figure in this book, General Spielsdorf.

There's certainly more than enough here to warrant the classic label it's earned since it was first published, and it's story is a lot more interesting than many other classics too! So, if you're feeling sinister, take a trip to Styria and meet the eternally youthful Carmilla - she'll never let you leave!
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Carmilla
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (Paperback - 19 Oct. 2003)
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