Carmilla: If you’re not an 1800s-horror expert, it’s better with a little homework

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le FanuCarmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu horror book reviewsCarmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Editor’s note: Carmilla is free in Kindle format because it’s in the public domain.

Giving Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) a 4-star rating feels a bit like critiquing my cat’s life choices. Sure, she could act more like a cat, and she could definitely make more sense from time to time — but ultimately, I love her and that ought to be enough.

Carmilla truly begins when Carmilla (surprise) arrives somewhat suddenly at the summer home of Laura and her father. It’s a picturesque manse on a hill, and the family is happy to take Carmilla in — even after the strange circumstances of her arrival — given that Laura has gone without any friends this pastoral summer. The reason Laura has no companions is because the only girl who had planned to visit grew ill and suddenly died. What ensues is a vampire story that holds many themes and ideas that reoccur in vampire tales to this day.

Free on Kindle!

I came to read Carmilla for two reasons: first, after devouring the web series of the same name, and second, because it was an assigned text for a class I am taking. Having these two essentially ‘extra’ media with which to understand and enjoy the story thoroughly enhanced my experience of it. Had I not first seen the web series I may have missed many of themes present in the original tale, and having now read the story I can see the places the series subverted ideas to make interesting points. Likewise with the class, I would not have understood the history of the tale without having talked about it in a lecture.

As a written work of fantasy, Carmilla is complete with characters, setting, and plot that make more sense for the time it was written than today but is still an engaging read. However, I enjoyed Carmilla at first with little knowledge of the historical significance. Through discussing Carmilla in class the historical significance and the culture moment in which it was written were explored, to the strengthening of the story. Things I would have missed otherwise became much more powerful aspects of the story with that additional contextualization of the tale.

My enjoyment of the text boiled down to consuming other media that deal with the story. Whether it was the web series or a lecture, a little bit more knowledge about Carmilla made the story both more accessible and richer. Both media helped me understand the story better — in both a historical and topical sense — which enhanced my reading and made me enjoy it more than I think I would without those outside media.

If you’re interested in a foundational vampire story beyond Dracula, Carmilla is a work that is worth exploring both as a text and as continuation of vampire lore.

Published in 1872. This Gothic novella tells the story of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire named Carmilla. Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 25 years, and has been adapted many times for cinema. Although Carmilla is a lesser known and far shorter Gothic vampire story than the generally-considered master work of that genre, Dracula, the latter is heavily influenced by Le Fanu’s short story.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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6 comments

  1. I think I want to check out the web series. I like le Fanu; he wrote good scary stuff for his time, and I’ve read *about* Camilla but never the actual story.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed the webseries (which is available on YouTube). It isn’t a true retelling, but the connections between the two stories are strong and I very much enjoyed where the webseries acknowledges and embraces the queer/lesbian undertones of the original tale. I really loved it! (It’s also Canadian :) )

  2. Excellent opening paragraph, Skye! (And the rest of the review was good and informative, so thank you for that.) :D

  3. I’m really happy to see a post like this here-the idea of deeper appreciation through contextualization is what I’m always pushing my students to understand, especially in my special topics courses that deal with this kind of material, both in literature and in cinema. There’s nothing to compare with the satisfaction of deep enjoyment of a work, because you see it as a piece in a much larger cultural whole.

    • I’m glad you liked the review! Culture is – more or less – my jam as a concept, and what drew me to anthropology as an area of study. Getting the opportunity to explore the contextualization of Carmilla (and many other works) in a lecture-based setting has been fantastic for me. So I agree entirely! When things were written, and when we read them, changes how they can be read! It’s really interesting and exciting and I’m very glad I got to explore Carmilla in this way.

    • Kathryn, please let us know if you’d like to write about this, or anything else you’re teaching or writing about, in our Expanded Universe column: http://www.fantasyliterature.com/category/expanded/
      We love to feature such “academic” ideas.

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