This classic vampire story, written twenty-five years before Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a must-read for lovers of Gothic fiction and vampire tales. I read this when I was in high school, after reading Interview with the Vampire and Dracula, finding myself hungry for other vampire stories. When I was browsing through my library's catalog of downloadable audiobooks, I came across Carmilla, and it felt like seeing an old friend. So I downloaded it to my iPod and had a great time revisiting it. As with most spooky tales, this one lends itself well to being read aloud; the narrator, Megan Follows, gives a delightfully creepy and emotional interpretation to the first-person narrative, and this audio production is a winner of the Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award.
The story is told by Laura, a young woman living in a castle in a remote country near Austria; her mother has died, and she lives with her father, her governesses, and other servants. As the book opens, we learn that she had been anticipating the visit of a family friend for a very long time - she'd been very much looking forward to the companionship of another girl her own age. But then she and her father receive the horrible news that the young woman has died, and Laura is devastated.
Not long after that, there is a carriage accident right near the castle. As Laura, her father, and her governesses run to see if they can help, they see a beautiful young woman, unconscious, being pulled from the overturned carriage. The girl's mother is hysterical - she is on an urgent trip, a matter of life and death, she says, and asks for the closest village, where she hopes to find an inn for her daughter. There is no such village, and Laura's father offers to have the girl stay with them for the three months the mother will be gone. Laura is delighted, but she and her father are puzzled by the injunction laid on them by the young woman's mother: they must not ask the girl, Carmilla, any questions about her past or her family. The mother promises to explain everything when she returns.
Carmilla is the perfect guest, it seems: a delightful companion for Laura, charming and intelligent, if rather weak and languorous - and definitely reticent about her past. There is something distinctly odd about her though, particularly her behavior when the two girls are alone together, which leaves Laura feeling equally attracted and repulsed by her friend, and very confused. As Laura succumbs to the mysterious illness that's been affecting young girls throughout the countryside, she is also afflicted by bizarre, upsetting dreams. The doctors are baffled, and her father grows increasingly worried about her delicate health...
The story may seem a bit obvious to those of us reading it today, who've read dozens of vampire tales and seen all the films, but for its time Carmilla must have been surprising and disturbing - and the lesbian undertones positively shocking. Yet there is a lot here to captivate the modern reader - the strong voice of the narrator, the eerie, atmospheric details, and the vivid imagery of Le Fanu's descriptive writing, among other things.
The story itself is much shorter than Dracula - it's really a novella, and it is a very quick read. I enjoyed my reread (or should I say, re-listen?) very much, although I did find its conclusion to be much less satisfying than I remembered. Potential spoilers follow, for those who have not read it - and for those who have, I'd love to hear what you thought of it.
I felt disappointed that Carmilla and Laura never confront each other, once Laura discovers the truth. Their relationship was so ambiguous, and I would have loved a clue about Carmilla's true feelings. Was Laura just prey? Was she something more? In a more modern telling of that book, such a scene would be indispensable! I felt cheated by the conclusion, also, as it was described in retrospect, which removed any sense of tension and much of the horror. I also felt that there were too many loose strings - what about the woman who claimed to be Carmilla's mother? What was their true relationship? Is she a vampire, too?
Aside from my minor quibbles (many of which stem from the fact that I'm reading it with 21st-century eyes, I'm sure), I very much enjoyed this book. It is fun to read these seminal works and see the original archetypes for many of the characters we've come to take for granted and view as simple stereotypes. It is interesting to think about the fact that sexual tension has permeated vampire fiction for well over a century. I wonder what Le Fanu would have thought about Lestat and Louis? Edward and Bella? Sookie Stackhouse? Queen Betsy? The mind boggles.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu; narrated by Megan Follows (Audio Partners Publishing Corporation, 2006; originally published in 1872)
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Adventures in Reading: "Though LeFanu’s work is easily solved approximately half way through and there are some significant unanswered questions, Carmilla is both a curious and interesting look at vampirism."
Love Vampires: "I had difficulty in bonding with Laura as I read this story. I think it was because Laura herself is not much of a heroine. In fact she is classic vampire bait!"