Literature / Carmilla

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"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 who lives with her father and a few servants in a secluded Austrian schlossnote . Laura is suffering deeply from loneliness, when a strange incident results in a mysterious girl — the beautiful Carmilla — becoming a guest at the schloss. In Carmilla, Laura finally finds the friend she has been looking for, but she is puzzled by Carmilla’s odd habits and her unwillingness to reveal her true identity.

Soon, an unknown disease that only kills young women strikes the countryside, and Laura herself eventually falls ill as well — when by chance, a friend of the family shows up with a tale that leads to a horrifying 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 (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. Carmilla’s unspeakable 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, Le Fanu) can discuss homosexuality without actually naming it.

The story has long been in the public domain, so feel free to check out the text or audiobook. It has recently been adapted into an ongoing modern day Vlog Series similar to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, featuring Laura and Carmilla as college roommates, the trope page for which can be found here.

Carmilla contains examples of:

  • Antagonist Title
  • Appeal to Nature: Carmilla believes that all things are part of the natural order, including her vampirism.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: When a poor peddler remarks, in good will but with little tact, on Carmilla's pointed teeth, she flies into a rage and declares "My father would have had the wretch tied up to the pump, and flogged with a cart whip, and burnt to the bones with the cattle brand!" She also reacts with contempt towards Laura's empathy for a peasant girl who dies of the mysterious illness (implied to be due to vampirism) sweeping the region, stating that she doesn't "trouble her head about peasants."
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: Le Fanu (or is it Laura?) sure uses the words "languid" and "languor" an awful lot.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Carmilla is often the soul of affection, in spite of her deadly intentions.
  • Boy Meets Ghoul: Laura is captivated by Carmilla. While she thinks of Carmilla as a friend, without any apparent eroticism, Carmilla declares several times that she is in love with Laura.
  • Bury Your Gays: Of course at the end of the story the lesbian vampire dies.
  • Byronic Heroine: Carmilla is not devoid of morals — she looks for arguments to justify her actions. She appears to feel great affection for her victims, becoming their close friend before killing them. Carmilla is seductive, charming, intellectual, self-critical, and intense in her anger and passion.
  • Cassandra Truth: The peasants claim that the disease in the region is caused by oupire attacks, but initially Laura's father refuses to believe them.
  • Cats Are Mean: Carmilla can assume the shape of a monstrous cat.
  • Claimed by the Supernatural: Laura seems to inspire an undeniable fascination in Carmilla.
  • Combo Platter Powers: Carmilla has supernatural strength and speed, can evaporate into thin air, appears to be able to pass through doors without opening them, and can transform into a monstrous cat.
  • Dark Is Evil: Carmilla's mother wears black velvet in the chariot scene, Carmilla is described by Laura as having Black Eyes and dark hair with "something golden". Also, Carmilla can assume the shape of a black cat.
  • Daywalking Vampire: Carmilla is not hurt by sunlight. However, she does appear to be more powerful at night.
  • First-Name Basis: Carmilla, till the revelation of her true name: Countess Mircalla Karnstein.
  • Genre Blindness: To some extent, Laura can be forgiven her naïveté — she lives in a time when the vampire genre barely existed, and folklore was still very regional. Still, she seems 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 — even after Laura herself turns up with bite marks on her chest, it never occurs to her that the odd stranger in her house whose appearance coincided exactly with her disturbing dreams and sickness might be to blame.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold paired with Innocent Blue Eyes: Laura, your Beauty Equals Goodness.
  • Haunted Castle: Though, technically, it isn't haunted before Carmilla shows up.
  • 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 her other victims), are superficially glossed over as just a peculiar manifestation of vampiric bloodlust. Carmilla is never stated to be lesbiannote , and which might be justified insofar as she only seeks to quench her thirst for blood, not seek satisfaction for sexual desires. However, the erotic subtext is pretty explicit (and most readers seem to take take Carmilla's homosexuality as a given).
  • Ill Girl: When Carmilla shows up, she is sickly and weak; a lot of her quirks are forgiven on this basis. Her listlessness and weakness are also symptoms of the vampiric illness experienced by her victims.
  • Innocence Lost: At the end of the book, it is clear that Laura never really recovered from her experience. [..] and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.
  • Last Name Basis: General Spielsdorf, Madame Perrodon, Mademoiselle LaFontaine and Baron Vordenburg.
  • Left Hanging: Carmilla apparently converted Laura's cousin. What happened to her?
    • Also, what happened to the lady in black velvet, believed 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 who took Carmilla's mother away from the masquerade? If all these were vampires, why is the threat thought to be at an end, 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.
  • Masquerade Ball: The ideal opportunity for vampires to stalk potential victims.
  • Missing Mom: Laura is motherless.
  • Must Be Invited: 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 among the local peasants.
  • No Name Given: Laura's father and Carmilla's mother. As it's told from her viewpoint, the narrator (Laura) goes nameless for half of the story until another character finally address her by name.
  • No Time to Explain: Laura's father tells her not to ask questions after the doctor has told him of the possibility that a vampire is responsible for her illness.
  • Not Using the Z Word: The word "vampire" is never used until the last few pages. Before that, there is only ominous talk of the oupire, the Northern Slavic version.
  • Oblivious to Love: Laura seems not to notice that Carmilla's feelings are deeper than friendship, even when she says that she loves her. She does, however, express discomfort with Carmilla's wilder utterances, perhaps indicating an awareness that she doesn't want to acknowledge. Other alternatives are that she acts oblivious to mask her fear of Carmilla's passion (and deny her own?), or because she is telling this story to a man, Dr. Hesselius, who she believes would judge her harshly.
  • Only One Name: Laura.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: For the curious: Le Fanu's vampire facts. Click here 
  • Parental Substitute: Madame Perrodon is, for Laura, a second mother.
  • Rasputinian Death: According to the local vampire expert, the following must be done to prevent a vampire's resurrection: first they have to be impaled, then decapitated, burned, and then have their ashes thrown into a river. This is Carmilla's ultimate fate.
  • Science Is Wrong: Laura's father thinks that the deaths in the region are caused by an epidemic or plague, and he is skeptical of the peasant superstitions proposing alternate explanations. What he does not realize is that the deaths really do have a supernatural cause, the peasants are right, and the killer is his guest.
  • Secondary Character Title
  • 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.
  • Stalking Is Love: In Carmilla's head. She says: "You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me, and hating me through death and after. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature."
  • Straight Gay: In an aside explaining why she doesn't think Carmilla is a man dressed as a woman to woo her, Laura says that despite Carmilla's "passionate declarations," her habits and mannerisms are female, and contain nothing indicating masculinity.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Laura seems to nourish some affection for Carmilla, even after discovering that she's a vampire.
  • Together in Death: It is likely that this was Carmilla's plan all along — she says things like, "But to die as lovers may — to die together, so that they may live together."
  • Tsundere: Laura to Carmilla. She admits that she feels pleasure in Carmilla's arms, but also disgust.
  • Überwald: Styria.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: The implied sexual tension between Laura and Carmilla throughout the book.
  • Vampire Hunter: Baron Vordenburg (likely the Trope Maker).
  • 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.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Laura says in the first chapter that the events in the story took place eight years ago, when she was 19 years old. She then recounts a dream she had, as a six-year-old child, of Carmilla. However, when she and Carmilla meet, they both exclaim that they dreamed of the other twelve years before, which would make Laura 18, not 19, when they meet in waking life. Additionally, later, in the middle of the book, Laura says that "10 years have passed since then", contradicting the eight year gap initially claimed.
    • Some commentators argue that the confusing dates may have been intentional on the part of Le Fanu, indicating that Laura is not a reliable narrator.
  • Yandere: Although the story predates the term by over a century, this is definitely what Carmilla is in regards to Laura

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