"Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood."
—Carmilla, chapter VI
Written and published in 1872 by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, this novella mixes authentic Middle- and Eastern European folklore and Gothic literature
. It formed the last story of five in the collection In a Glass Darkly
, but it has since often been published separately.
Its heroine and narrator is Laura, an English girl that lives with her father and few servants at a secluded Austrian schlossnote
. Laura is suffering deeply from loneliness, when a strange incident leads to a mysterious girl to stay as a guest at the schloss
– the beautiful Carmilla. In Carmilla, Laura finally finds the friend she was looking for, but she is puzzled by Carmilla’s odd habits and her unwillingness to reveal her true identity.
An unknown disease that only kills young women strikes the countryside. Eventually, Laura herself falls ill of the ominous sickness — when by chance, a friend of the family shows up with a tale of news that leads to a horrible revelation.Carmilla
is a milestone in the vampire
genre: It includes a Haunted Castle
, the Überwald
(officially Styria), and tells you that Your Vampires Suck
— the latter when Laura compares Carmilla to "fictitious" vampires. Subtly, the striking beauty of the eponymous character suggests that Vampires Are Sex Gods
. Yes, all these tropes are Older Than Radio
Most notably though, the novella is the Trope Maker
for the Lesbian Vampire
. The trick here is that Carmilla’s unmentionable secret echoes the taboo status of homosexuality in Victorian society, and Carmilla’s unholy appetite
also evokes a different kind of forbidden desire. And while the story never ever talks about sex, the subtext is so obvious that Carmilla (or rather, the author through the mouth of Carmilla) can discuss homosexuality without actually naming it.
The story has long been in the public domain, so feel free to check out the text
Carmilla contains examples of:
- Adult Fear: Even today, the idea that a predatory monster is threatening to kill your child without your knowledge and watching them slowly waste away in the process is realistically frightening.
- Ambiguously Gay: Literally – it is never resolved whether Carmilla’s passion is love… or hunger. Laura, although she feels embarrassed and even disturbed by Carmilla's passionate affection (or so she says), is nevertheless positively entranced by Carmilla and repeatedly remarks "how beautiful" Carmilla is; she also likes to play with Carmilla's hair.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: When a poor pedlar remarks in good will, but with little tact on Carmilla's fanged teeth, she flies in a rage and declares "we would have had him whipped!" She also reacts very contemptuously on Laura's empathy on the death of a peasant girl that was (as is implied) killed by vampires (probably by Carmilla herself), stating she doesn't "trouble her head about peasants."note
- Author Vocabulary Calendar: Le Fanu (or is it Laura?) sure uses the words "languid" and "languor" an awful lot.
- Cats Are Mean: Carmilla can assume the shape of a monstrous cat.
- Daywalking Vampire: Carmilla is not hurt by sunlight; however, she appears to be more powerful at night.
- Evil-Detecting Dog
- Evil Feels Good: Carmilla, although she did not become a vampire of her free will, obviously fully embraced her vampiric existence. She is, however, not totally without moral reflection, as she tries in fact in several instances to justify or rationalize her behavior (naturally nobody gets it). Some of her strange fits of agitation could even be the effect of feelings of guilt.
- Exposition of Immortality: One of the old portraits at Laura's castle, dated to 1698, shows a noblewoman who is Carmilla's spitting image. What a coincidence! Now let's move on to other things.
- Foreshadowing: Part of the fun in Carmilla is that the final reveal is hinted at countless times, but all the characters are just too clueless to get it.
- Genre Blindness: To some extent, Laura can be forgiven her naïveté due to living in a time when the vampire genre barely existed. Still, she's overly willing to give Carmilla the benefit of the doubt even as her behaviour grows increasingly suspicious, showing fear and hatred towards religious symbols and ceremonies, disappearing from her room every morning and returning in the late afternoon, and even after Laura herself turns up with bite marks on her chest.
- Haunted Castle: Though it is technically not haunted before Carmilla shows up there.
- Hemo Erotic: It is strongly implied that sucking blood is a lustful experience for Carmilla.
- Hide Your Lesbians: Technically played straight: The facts that Carmilla obviously only stalks women, preferably girls of her own age, and is eager to form a romantic relationship with Laura (instead of finishing her off within days, as she does with other victims), are superficially glossed over as just a peculiar manifestation of vampiric bloodlust. Carmilla is never defined as a lesbiannote , and this is justified insofar she does not seek satisfaction for sexual desires, but for her hunger for blood. However, because erotic connotations are inherent to the vampire genre to start with (and accordingly, literary vampires from the beginning in general prefer victims of the opposite sex), this could still be read as a clear implication of lesbianism on Carmilla's part (and most readers seem to take it as this). On the other hand, there is an alternative interpretation that Carmilla stalks young women because she herself died as a young woman, and therefore is cursed to drain the life of other young women out of desire to regain a taste of the life she herself was not allowed to live. So whether Carmilla is a lesbian or not is ultimately in the eye of the reader. The ambiguity between the two interpretations may very well be deliberate on the author's part.
- Horror Hunger: And horrible it is.
- Humanoid Abomination: Carmilla herself. Sometimes when she feeds, she loses the 'humanoid' part.
- Ill Girl: What Carmilla appears to be at first; a lot of her seeming quirks are forgiven on that basis. Also what vampire victims slowly become if they happen to attract the vampire (otherwise the vampire kills them quickly).
- Left Hanging: Carmilla apparently converted Laura's cousin. What happened to her? Also, what happened to the Lady in black velvet supposed to be Carmilla's mother? Who was the old ugly woman that never left the coach that brought Carmilla? Who (or what) were the repulsive-looking servants that handled the coach? Who was the tall pale man in black that took Carmilla's mother away from the masquerade? If all these were vampires, why is the threat supposed to be ended, when only Carmilla has been destroyed?
- Lesbian Vampire: Trope Maker, if not Trope Codifier. Note that the novella never makes it clear whether Carmilla's attraction to Laura is erotic in nature ... or gastronomical. The ambiguity, however, is quite unambiguous.
- Somewhat prefigured and quite possibly inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Christabel. Scholars have noticed the similarities between Christabel and Laura, and also those between Coleridge's mysterious Geraldine and Le Fanu's Carmilla.
- Manipulative Bastard: Carmilla and her accomplices.
- Masquerade Ball: The ideal opportunity for vampires to stalk potential victims.
- Not Using the V Word: The word "vampire" is never used until the last few pages. Before that, there is only ominous talk about the oupir, the North-slavic version of the vampire.
- Our Vampires Are Different: For the curious: Le Fanu's vampire facts. Click here
- Psycho Lesbian: If you subscribe to the interpretation that Carmilla actually is a lesbian, this is played straight in that Carmilla turns out to be a murderous, predatory undead monster, which could rise Unfortunate Implications, which would actually be considered Wholesome Implications in the 19th century. Fridge Logic, however, may make you realize that every vampire is a predatory monster (not counting Friendly Neighborhood Vampires, which were not invented at the time), so lesbianism is actually not a crucial point to Carmilla's evilness. Whether LeFanu demonized lesbianism is still up to debate.
- Rasputinian Death: The method required to kill vampires, to completely prevent them from resurrecting, according to the local vampire expert: first they have to be impaled, then decapitated, burned, and then have their ashes thrown into a river. This is Carmilla's ultimate fate.
- Significant Anagram: Carmilla apparently creates new aliases for herself by anagramming her original name Mircalla; a previous victim knew her as "Millarca."
- Stalker with a Crush: Carmilla to Laura.
- Überwald: Styria.
- Vampires Are Sex Gods: Although there is no actual sex in the story, everyone is smitten by Carmilla's beauty and charm (well, until The Reveal). Also, her "mum" is definitely a looker.
- Vampire Hunter: Baron Vordenburg (likely the Trope Maker).
- Vampire Invitation: Pretending to be human, the vampires go to great lengths to trick their victims into actively inviting them into their houses. However, the same limitation seems not to apply to Carmilla's nightly feeding forays.
- Yandere: Although the story predates the term by over a century, this is definitely what Carmilla is in regards to Laura.
- Your Vampires Suck
- You Sexy Beast