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on 27 December 2013
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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on 8 July 2015
Ingrid Pitt was perfect for the Hammer Film version of 'Carmilla' and brought with it an understanding that this is Not about being a lesbian nor
any other sexual orientation. This is a fascinating piece of writing that will please for many many years to come and more for what it is 'Vamp Pires' a take on words.
As Ingrid herself has pointed out several times on filmed interviews; 'she loves men' and when she was making the film, Carmilla,
the term lesbian did not enter her mind. Read this book and you will understand. The Vampire fans will know this too.
I hope I enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed and never forgot the film; though this was probably due to Ingrids full on performance. Long Live
the Late Ingrid Pitt and long live this little book of horrors. 👻 Enjoy !
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on 17 February 2015
I picked this up after seeing the gothic literature exhibition at the British Library. At this price you cannot really go wrong. The writing style works well for the subject matter being slightly arcane but at times evocative, and it is suitably short - I always find it hard to read full blown novels in this genre due to the fact that they cannot be believable.. I have seen the Hammer House film 'Lust for a Vampire' which 'borrows' heavily from the book which is always a rather strange experience as you vaguely know the plot and the characters in your mind aren't quite as they are written in the book.
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on 23 January 2013
Most people have heard of Stoker and Dracula but very few have come across his Irish literary counterpart: Le Fanu and his novel Carmilla. Yet this is odd because Carmilla is (arguably) better written than Dracula and Stoker was definitely aware of Le Fanu's work. Indeed, some have even speculated that Stoker gained inspiration from Carmilla when he was writing Dracula. For those of you who enjoy gothic and horror fiction and are interested in vampires, then I really do recommend this novel. It predates Dracula and is told by Laura who is not a very reliable narrator and how she comes to be seduced by Carmilla - although it's all very ambiguous. For me this ambiguity makes it all the more poignant because it leaves open the possibility that Laura is not as horrified as she claims and may even desire Carmilla. Considering this novel was published in the 1880s the latent suggestion of lesbianism would have been quite controversial and, in my opinion, more people should read it. In terms of this particular edition, it has a very good introduction which discusses the literary transformation of the vampire figure during the 19th century in relation to Carmilla. References in the actual novel that a modern reader may not understand are explained in foot notes at the back of the book, and so the reader can look them up if they want to. However, if readers prefer not to do this, they foot notes do not intrude on the text. I would therefore recommend it to students and general readers alike.
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on 23 February 2012
Before there were sparkles and R-Patz, there was Dracula and before Dracula there was Carmilla. Written by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu in 1872, it is similar to Twilight in that the vampire is obsessed with a dreamy young girl. However Carmilla contains two things missing in Twilight:

1) Blood
2) Lesbians

Laura is a normal teenager who spends her days listening to Justin Bieber and smoking meth. Well, she would if they had been invented, but they haven't so instead she spends her days moping around her dad's house, a large, draughty castle in the mountains in Austria.

Her biggest wish is to have a friend and she finds one in the most expected way, when a carriage has an accident right outside their castle. The beautiful young Carmilla is taken in and nursed back to health, becoming Laura's BFF in the process.

Only thing is, Carmilla is really friendly. She likes kissing Laura's neck and talking about how the two of them will probably die together. Also, a mysterious plague has struck the nearby village, and young girls are being found dead each morning.

Never mind Twilight, what Carmilla most closely resembles is Let The Right One In. There's a creeping sense of dread on every page, a hypnotic rhythm to the way Laura tells her story and the ache of teenage loneliness at the heart of it.

It's quite brilliant. If you're a vampire fan of any stripe and you haven't read this, you should get cracking now.
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on 25 July 2009
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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on 3 February 2009
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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on 17 January 2015
Well-executed recording of Le Fanu's classic tale of vampirism. Too bad the blurb on the back cover gives too much of the plot away for first-time readers/listeners. The frame narrative of the story from its inclusion in 'In a Glass darkly' is omitted, but to be fair that's not much of a loss.

Tracy Childs has a pleasant voice to listen to, but I find her occasional mimicry of French and German accents in English a little unconvincing. Otherwise a fine recording by a fine actress. Let's hope Fantom Films will release more recordings of Le Fanu's ghost stories in the near future. There's a wealth of first-rate material, all out of copyright, waiting there (the other stories from 'In a Glass Darkly', such as 'Green Tea'; the stories in 'Madam Crowl's Ghost') - and most of it is unavailable in the audiobook medium as of yet. I will certainly be buying them!
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on 5 March 2015
The internet based show inspired me to read the original novel and I'm so glad that I did. I, like I suspect many more before me, fell instantly in love with not only carmilla, but the beautiful way the book was written. From start to finish I was saddened to part with its pages for more than a few minutes, and no other piece of literature could satisfy the need this book presented me. I would wholly recommend it to anybody and everybody and only wish my school had taught it in English so as to allow me the pleasure of knowing it's tale well before now.
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on 12 August 2015
Gothic literature as it should be. The narrative style works well and you easily connect with the main character. The story is interesting and the veiled sexual undercurrent would have been quite uncomfortable for the audience of the time and perhaps held it back from a wider readership. Definitely worth reading and a deserved forefather of the vampire genre.
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