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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 schloss.note  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 Vampire Fiction: It includes a Haunted Castle, the Überwald (actually Styria in Austria), 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.

This theme was 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.

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. Another (loose) adaptation is the book and later film The Moth Diaries, to the point the originally story is directly referenced. A film version of the story, here set during the late 1700s, came out in 2019.

Carmilla contains examples of:

  • Antagonist Title: One more thing Carmilla did decades before Dracula.
  • Appeal to Nature: When Laura's father brings news of another peasant woman falling sick from the mysterious disease and tries to reassure Laura and Carmilla by asserting that even the disease must be within God's will, Carmilla in constrast puts forth her belief that the disease is natural, and that "all things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth act and live as Nature ordains". As it is strongly implied the disease of the peasant woman is caused by Carmilla feeding on her, Carmilla is transparently justifying her vampiric predation as a part of the natural order of things.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil:
    • When a mountebank who is selling charms 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!"
    • Carmilla reacts with contempt towards Laura's empathy for a peasant girl who died of the mysterious illness (that is to say, a vampire feeding on her), stating that she doesn't "trouble her head about peasants." This remark becomes even more callous when it is revealed that it is Carmilla who had been feeding on her.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: Le Fanu (or is it Laura?) sure uses the words "languid" and "languor" an awful lot.
  • Big Fancy House: The schloss where Laura lives. One floor alone has about twenty-five rooms.
  • Blood Bath (evoked): When the grave of Mircalla Karnstein is opened, her body is found in a leaden coffin perfectly uncorrupted, and floating in seven inches of blood.
  • Blood Countess: Carmilla's real name is Countess Mircalla Karstein and it is revealed that she is an actual vampire, and that she has been killing random women for a very long time. Her obsession with Laura only indicates this trope further. Carmilla was most likely another inspiration for the trope, and she's also an Expy in a ton others.
  • 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.
  • Break the Cutie: Laura is traumatized by her experience, and even many years later, thinks about Carmilla and startles when she imagines Carmilla might enter her drawing-room.
  • Bury Your Gays: Of course at the end of the story the lesbian vampire dies, out of necessity as part of the lesbian vampire thing.
  • 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. This makes her an interesting counterpart to the more famous Dracula, who could take the form of a dog or wolf.
  • 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, although even going for a short walk will exhaust her physically. However, she does appear to be more powerful at night.
  • Delicate and Sickly: When Carmilla shows up, she is sickly and weak; this only seems to enhance her attractiveness, and a lot of her quirks are forgiven on this basis.
  • Eating Optional: Carmilla drinks wine and hot chocolate on several occasions, although she is never mentioned to eat anything.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: The mountebank's dog will not cross the drawbridge into the courtyard of the schloss, and howls continually while the mountebank converses with Laura and Carmilla. For added irony, the mountebank is eager to sell his vampire-repellent charms, but scolds his dog for howling.
  • Evil Feels Good: Carmilla, although she did not become a vampire of her own free will, obviously fully embraced her vampiric existence. She is, however, not totally without moral reflection, as she tries on several occasions 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: Among the old paintings which Laura's mother inherited from her family is a portrait, dated 1698, of Countess Mircalla Karnstein, who Laura recognizes is the spitting image of Carmilla. While Laura is astounded by the perfect resemblance of Carmilla to the portrait, her father, though taking note of the similarity, chalks it up to coincidence.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The Styrian nobleman who was in love with Carmilla when she was still alive believed that if she would be killed as a vampire, she would suffer one of those, although he never elaborated on what that meant. It was one of the reasons why he hid her tomb.
  • Femme Fatale: Carmilla. A gorgeous and seductive young woman, she uses all tools in her feminine arsenal to charm everyone around her, especially her intended victims.
  • Foreshadowing: The evening Carmilla is taken in at the schloss, Laura, her father and her two governesses go for a walk in the moonlight, and Madame De Lafontaine opines that the intense moonlight indicates "a special spiritual activity", and underpins her claim by remarking that the windows of the schloss reflect the moonlight "as if unseen hands had lighted up the rooms to receive fairy guests". She also tells a story of how her cousin on a moonlit night dreamt of "an old woman clawing him by the cheek", and woke up with "his features horribly drawn to one side" and "never quite recover[ing their] equilibrium." Moments after, a troupe of (so we must assume) vampires stages a carriage crash in front of the schloss (vampires are ghosts, i.e. spirits, hence "a special spiritual activity"); Carmilla is taken in at the schloss (a "fairy guest" received); and finally Laura is attacked (physically and figuratively) by Carmilla, and, like the cousin's face, never recovers her former balance again.
  • 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.
  • Ghostly Glide: The first night that Carmilla enters Laura's bedroom at night, Laura wakes up and sees "a female figure" standing at the foot of her bed. Though the figure stands perfectly still, she seems nevertheless to change its place and move out by the door.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Laura is portrayed as a sweet and innocent but naive and inexperienced young woman. Her golden hair and Innocent Blue Eyes are used to emphasize this characterization.
  • The Hecate Sisters: The carriage which crashes in front of the schloss contains Carmilla, first described as a "young lady" resp. a "slender girl", and a middle-aged lady in a black velvet dress who claims to be Carmilla's mother and who is described as "tall but not thin" and having a "commanding air and figure"; only the governess, Mademoiselle De Lafontaine, observes a third person looking out of the window but not leaving the carriage, and whom she describes as a "hideous black woman" with "gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs", and who is "nodding and grinning derisively". We never find out who Carmilla's companions really are, but together the three fulfill the "maiden, matron, hag" triad.
  • Helicoper Parents: Although Laura never blames him, there are clear hints that her father is afraid of letting go of her. Even though Laura is suffering from loneliness at the castle, he does not take her to balls, send her to a boarding school, or consciously prepare her for a life outside of the castle. When Laura's father tells her of the death of Bertha Rheinfeldt, General Spielsdorf's niece whom Laura was looking forward to meet, he adds that he is "very glad" that Laura never got to know Bertha, because this way she has been spared the grief of losing a friend. Taken to its conclusion, this reaction indicates that he prefers his daughter not to have friends at all rather than to risk grief from experiencing loss; obviously not a very wise precept, as this in turn makes Laura starved for friendship and affection, making her easy prey for Carmilla.
  • Hide Your Lesbians: 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 Carmilla's homosexuality as a given).
  • The Ingenue: Due to her isolated upbringing, Laura is very naive and tends to believe the best in people, even when her instinct tells her otherwise. For example, after the carriage accident, she felt that Carmilla's mother was putting on a show but brushed it off as being just her theatrical personality.
  • 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.
  • Inspiration Nod: In the last chapter, Laura names several of the books in Baron Vordenburg's vampire library, one of them being Phlegon de Mirabilibus. The book thus referenced, the Book of Wonders by Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century CE), contains the story of Philinnion, about a beautiful young woman who dies young and returns as an undead in order to satisfy her erotic desire for a living target.
  • Irony: The mountebank sells anti-vampire charms to Carmilla, the very vampire responsible for the malady plaguing Styria. She buys it immediately, and gushes to Laura about how well it supposedly works. This serves to lure Laura into a false sense of security.
  • Kiss of the Vampire: Laura (who is not aware that she is being fed on by a vampire) perceives Carmilla's bites in a semi-conscious state as "a hand [...] drawn softly along my cheek and neck", followed by a feeling "as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself". Despite Carmilla's apparent wish to make her bite painless, maybe even pleasurable to Laura, this is not truly successful; the actual bite (which is not felt by Laura) induces physical reactions that are evocative of orgasm ("my heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and fully drawn"), only to pass over into "a sense of strangulation", a "dreadful convulsion", and loss of consciousness.
  • Last-Name Basis: General Spielsdorf, Madame Perrodon, Mademoiselle LaFontaine and Baron Vordenburg. This is of course normal for the period.
  • Lazy Alias: Carmilla seems fond of using transparent anagrams of her name as aliases. Her real name is Mircalla, and General Spielsdorf knows her as Millarca. Laura speculates that this behaviour may be part of her vampiric nature.
  • Left Hanging:
    • 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? Although it's possible they were merely human accomplices.
    • Did Bertha and Laura come back as vampires?
  • 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.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: 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.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Laura and Carmilla. Laura is a fair-haired innocent and child-like young woman, while Carmilla is a dark-haired sophisticated, worldly and seductive Femme Fatale. And essentially a serial killer.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Due to so rarely having company of her own age, Laura eagerly accepts that of Carmilla. The "rich" bit is somewhat downplayed, though: while Laura clearly belongs to the upper layers of society and lives in a Big Fancy House, her family can only afford it due to the low cost of living in Styria.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Carmilla is actually distantly related to Laura, since the latter's mother is said to be a maternal descendant of the Karnsteins. What role this plays in Carmilla's attraction to Laura is ambiguous.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Carmilla and her accomplices. She manipulates various noblemen to host her for free in their castles, and preys on their daughters or wards. She also manipulates her victims into trusting her. In one instance, she even encourages Laura to purchase an ineffective anti-vampire charm in order to lull her into a false sense of security.
  • Masquerade Ball: General Spielsdorf and his young ward first meet Millarca (one of Carmilla's aliases) and her mother at a masquerade ball. The mother acts as if she's an old friend of the general's, but to his frustration refuses to remove her mask or divulge her identity. During the party, the general agrees to host Millarca while her mother is out travelling.
  • Missing Mom: Laura's mother died from an unspecified cause when Laura was an infant. Laura shares the loss of a mother with other victims of Carmilla: Bertha Rheinfeldt is implied to be an orphan; the coffin of the forester's daughter whose funeral Laura and Carmilla watch is followed by her father only; and the ailing young peasant woman Laura's father tells about lives with her brother, implying her parents are no longer alive.
  • Must Be Invited: Subverted in that Carmilla's desire for an invitation doesn't seem to stem from any particular restriction but from a desire to live legitimately with her next victim and nurture a relationship with her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: A nobleman from Upper Styria, who had been deeply in love with Carmilla when she was still alive, hid all traces of her tomb after she died because "he conceived a horror, be she what she might, of her remains being profaned by the outrage of a posthumous execution." When he grew old, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake, and left behind tracings and drawings which would eventually be used to find Carmilla's grave and put an end to her.
  • No Full Name Given: That Laura is on First-Name Basis with her friend Carmilla is not surprising. It seems a bit unusual, though, that nobody else uses her full name either, until the reveal at the end of her true name and title, Countess Mircalla Karnstein.
  • 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 not used up to chapter 13 (of 16), when it is used by the woodman who relates how the village of Karnstein came to be deserted. Before that, there is only ominous talk of the "oupire", the equivalent of vampire in the North-Slavic languages.
  • 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.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Le Fanu's vampire facts: Can walk around in daylight, but are "languid" and quickly exhausted physically (not mentally), and appear to be much more powerful during the night. They are able to shapeshift, pass through closed doors, and move too quickly for the human eye to follow. They possibly can even turn invisible or dematerialize. The grip of their hands is unnaturally strong and can cause human limbs to grow stiff. Moonlight, especially, enhances their powers. They have to return to their grave at least for some hours every day and are unable to relocate their own gravesite on their own account, making their activities somewhat territorially restricted. Other than some special long, thin, pointy teeth that are hard to notice, they appear indistinguishable from living human beings, and have a faint pulse and respiration even in their dormant state. They suck blood only from sleeping victims. They may kill a victim in a single night, but usually return to the same person for a few days up to (rarely) several weeks. If not hindered, they always continue their visits until the victim dies, causing the victim to become a vampire themselves. Vampires are not peculiarly pale — on the contrary Carmilla is admired for her beautiful, brilliant, rosy complexion ... especially when she has fed on blood the previous night.
  • Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: Played with. Carmilla is very affectionate towards Laura, telling her how much she loves her and that she wants them to be together forever. Laura sees Carmilla as a dear friend, and has no sexual attraction to her, and initially she believes that the same holds true for Carmilla, and that she's just using pseudo-romantic language to express her friendship (as was, indeed, common at the time). Laura soon senses something deeper in Carmilla's affections, though (whether sexual or predatory), which is worrying and somewhat repulsive to Laura.
  • 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: Carmilla is not the protagonist, but the story is named after her.
  • Serial Killer: Carmilla moves around through Styria and leaves a large number of bodies behind her. Theoretically, she could only feed once on a victim and leave her alive, but she seems perfectly content to drain them until death.
  • Shared Dream: Laura and the title character recognize each other from a shared dream in their childhoods upon first encountering each other. It later turns out, however, that Carmilla is a vampire who used her powers of suggestion on Laura in order to make her remember a dream she's never had and thus to get into her confidence.
  • Significant Anagram: Carmilla apparently creates new aliases for herself by anagramming her original name Mircalla; a previous victim knew her as "Millarca."
  • 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."
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Laura still nourishes some affection for Carmilla, even after it has been revealed that Carmilla is a vampire who is not only responsible for the death of many people, but also wants to kill Laura. It is not clear whether this is a true remainder of their friendship or just an effect of the vampire's power over her victims.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: Carmilla preys on her victims while they are asleep and helpless. She herself is helpless and asleep when the vampire hunters find her in her tomb and execute her.
  • Together in Death: Carmilla frequently says things like "But to die as lovers may — to die together, so that they may live together" to Laura. Laura first thinks of this as hyperbolic expressions of their Pseudo-Romantic Friendship, but as Carmilla's true nature is revealed, it seems that this was her literal plan for Laura. Unlike some of her other victims, which she just discarded and let die, Carmilla wants to kill Laura so they can stay together, probably raising her as a vampire.
  • Tsundere: Laura to Carmilla. She admits that she feels pleasure in Carmilla's arms, but also disgust.
  • Überwald: Styria lies a bit further west than conventional Überwald (it was a duchy in Austria in the 19th century, and is today divided between Austria and Slovenia), but otherwise it fits the trope: complete with Gothic ruins, a Haunted Castle, Lesbian Vampire and superstitious peasants.
  • Undead Barefooter: The novella's stage adaptation uses bare feet as a visual indication of vampirism.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In the opening chapter, Laura emphasizes how very lonely and "solitary" the schloss is, describing it as situated in the middle of an extensive forest, and at seven miles distance from the nearest village, thus giving the impression that the schloss is the only human habitation for miles around. But over the course of her narration it becomes clear that there are people living in the surrounding area, some of them close by, as is shown by Laura and Carmilla watching a funeral procession passing by only a short walk from the schloss, and her father visiting a sick peasant "only a mile away"; indeed the "small estate" linked to the schloss implies the presence of tenants who work on the estate. Laura perceives the schloss as impossibly remote and "lonely" because she is almost entirely isolated from the people who live in the vicinity (like peasants, woodcutters, and forest rangers) by distinctions of class, and possibly also religion.note 
  • Vampire Hickey: The doctor who examines Laura because of her deteriorating health is certain that she is being visited by a vampire when he discovers "a small blue spot, about the size of the tip of [a] little finger" on her upper chest, only a "little below [the] throat". Later we are told that a different doctor found a like "small livid mark" in the same spot on Bertha Rheinfeldt before she died. While these blue spots mark the points where the victim has been bitten by the vampire, the actual punctures left by the vampire's teeth are so small as to be almost invisible. Laura also one time mentions off-handedly that Carmilla has a "little mole on her throat"; it seems possible that the "mole" is actually the mark left by the vampire who killed her.
  • Vampire Hunter: Baron Vordenburg is likely the Trope Maker. He is an eccentric old nobleman who has devoted his life to the study of the lore of vampires and the tracking down and extermination of them. He also has family history with Carmilla: his ancestor was an admirer of Countess Mircalla during her life and did some research about what became of her. The Count doesn't physically track down Mircalla's grave (that is done by Laura's father and the General) and only appears after the grave has been located, but he has assisted with information throughout the hunt.
  • 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.
  • Your Vampires Suck: In the last chapter, Laura recounts some of the vampire lore she learned through Baron Vordenburg and mentions that the "deadly pallor" sometimes attributed to vampires is "a mere melodramatic fiction". This is likely a swipe at Varney the Vampire (1845-47), in which the titular vampire is often described as unnaturally pale.