By: Stuti Maitra Sarkar
I have a male friend whom I often make fun of for how he talks about powerful and antagonistic women in fiction. He’d tell me (as a joke, I hope) about how he would be entirely willing to have them manipulate him, attack him, or- in his case- drain him of his life force, and how he’d even enjoy it. I’d always respond with comments along the lines of “you won’t be enjoying anything if you’re dead”, making fun of how his attraction to such women blinded him to everything else about them. And then I happened to read “Carmilla”, and you know what? If the titular vampire decides to live in my house, begin a strange relationship with me and slowly kill me while I am asleep, I don’t think I’d complain.
“Carmilla” was a novella written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1872. The plot is fairly simple. It follows a young girl, Laura. Carmilla appears to have been in a carriage accident outside Laura and her father’s house, and Carmilla’s mother leaves her at Laura’s home until she can return from her trip. Laura and Carmilla grow to become very close friends, with some undeniably romantic interactions. Soon, Laura starts getting sick, growing weaker and paler every day. Later, she and her father hear, from a General, about a woman named “Millarca” (very clearly an anagram of Carmilla), allegedly a vampire, who killed another young girl near the beginning of the story, whose symptoms before dying were almost the same as whatever sickness Laura seems to be suffering from. I’m sure that everyone who has ever read any stories about vampires can guess where this is going. Carmilla is a vampire, she’s feeding off Laura while she sleeps, and Laura’s father hunts her down at the end. Surprise!
To readers today, the story of Carmilla comes across as rather cliché. The plot twists aren’t particularly surprising, and the story doesn’t feel scary. But all cliches had to begin somewhere. Carmilla predates Dracula by nearly 20 years and has arguably inspired a lot of the lore regarding vampires in the latter. It was also stated as an inspiration in Anne Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire”, Carmilla was one of the earliest instances of fiction where vampires were seen to have fangs. She could shapeshift- albeit not into the stereotypical bat, but into a large black cat. She could walk in the sun, but it visibly weakened her, and she appeared very uncomfortable in the presence of hymns and religious music. She also had to periodically rest, inside a coffin. A lot of these tropes are, today, considered very common beliefs about vampires. Another piece of lore was that Carmilla could go by different fake names, “Marcilla”, for example. The catch here is that whatever fake name she chooses, it must be an anagram of her actual name. This was not used in the novel Dracula. However, it did find its way into pop culture with- “Alucard”, an anagram for Dracula as used in Hellsing and Castlevania.
The other noteworthy thing about Carmilla is how surprisingly progressive it is. Besides its historic significance in inspiring so many other pieces of literature, it is genuinely just a good book. It was one of the first books to feature a female vampire- one of the only earlier such works being “The Dead Woman in Love,” a short story by French writer, Théophile Gautier. It also follows a romance developing between two women, which wasn’t very common in that era. I went into the book expecting the romance to be mostly subtext, given that the book was from 1872, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how direct it was. There was very little room for subtlety in their relationship. Besides the obvious physical intimacy, there are a lot of other instances that exemplify their love. One of the most significant ones is when Carmilla tells Laura- “I have been in love with no one, and never shall unless it should be with you.” and how Laura claims that Carmilla had “the ardor of a lover”. This isn’t to say that their relationship is perfect. Carmilla’s behavior comes across as incredibly predatory- both in the sense that she appears very jealous and possessive, and in the sense that she is quite literally preying on Laura, but this doesn’t overshadow the queerness itself. It is never depicted or brought up in a negative light, and the conflicts have very little to do with both of them being women- the conflict is that one of them is a vampire who is slowly killing the other.
Ultimately, if you have some time on your hands, I would recommend reading this book. Although the plot is predictable to us today, the story is entertaining all the same. While people have increasingly begun to recognize Carmilla and the works of Le Fanu for their literary merit, the book is still best known for the work it inspired. The most fascinating thing about older literature, for me personally, has always been its impact, its legacy- seeing the foundations that so many subsequent pieces of art were built on. Given all the tropes that this book played a huge role in popularizing, it is undeniable that Gothic literature as we know it today would not be nearly the same without Carmilla.