I don’t normally write reviews, but I’m in the midst of a dark depression and can’t seem to write any fiction right now. I can’t usually afford books anymore, but luckily Carmilla was only $1 on Google’s Play Books and that’s the sort of price that works for me at the moment… Be warned this review will be full of spoilers.
Carmilla is a gothic novella that was first published in 1872, around 25 years before Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was published. It has been said that Carmilla was an important influence on Stoker when he was writing Dracula, as well as Le Fanu’s other works. Carmilla, the story’s antagonist, is a vampire and has designs on the story’s narrator. You could say there is quite a strong lesbian undercurrent to this work.
The story is written as a personal memoir by the story’s main character, Louise. During the book, she and her father live in a castle on a small estate that her father has acquired in Styria (located in the south-east of Austria). Laura describes the castle as having a moat and a single drawbridge and being surrounded by forest and being miles away from any other settlement. Honestly upon reading that I just wanted to move in there immediately. I mean if that place exists, can I live there? Please? I can live with the vampire issues they seem to have.
One evening they are outside and witness a carriage accident not far from the estate. A middle-aged woman and her daughter Carmilla are in the carriage. Carmilla is unconscious and Laura’s father agrees to let Carmilla stay at their castle while her mother continues on an important errand and promises to be back in three months time for her. I immediately thought this was a convenient way to get Carmilla to stay at the castle, like it was part of a routine or scam, more about that later.
Once Carmilla begins staying at the castle many young women in the surrounding area start getting sick and dying. I would have been suspicious about that from the outset, but the narrator nor her father seem to connect the dots in time. She also forms a close relationship to Laura, who seems to be both attracted and repelled by her at the same time. Towards the end of the story, Carmilla starts turning her vampiric attention towards Laura (presumably she’s run out of other young women in the area to feed on) and you do get a sense from Laura that she is gradually getting weaker and knows she is facing death.
Upon a trip to the ruins of Karnstein, it is revealed that Carmilla is actually Mircalla, Countess of Karnstein (Carmilla being an anagram of Mircalla) and that she has done this sort of thing before, notably to a friend of Laura’s father, General Spielsdorf. He had also let Carmilla stay at his residence, though she had the name Millarca at the time (another anagram). His niece, became good friends with Millarca, and slowly died. He gives an account of his experience to Laura and her father on their way to Karnstein, and they finally notice how similar his story is to theirs regarding Carmilla. What happens at Karnstein I will leave to anyone wanting to read this work.
Overall I quite liked the writing style. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the castle and its environs, as well as Laura’s life there. I also thought the way Carmilla quite deviously got into Laura’s head at times, as well as often arousing sympathy from her, was quite well done. Carmilla came off as quite a subtle predator at times. Whenever Laura was quite ill or scared Carmilla would intentionally mirror those feelings and make it seem like she herself was worse off. She put a lot of effort in trying to appear human to Laura, though there was the occasional slip. When Carmilla was finally feeding on Laura, Laura’s sense of fatalism and claustrophobia seemed genuine and understandable. It would have been nice to have slightly more overt sexuality in this, given the subject matter, but then again what could you expect from the 1870s.
It’s a short work and can be easily be read in a day. If you like vampire stories or even stories with a tinge of lesbianism to them, then it’s well worth reading this.
Four and half blood-soaked fangs out of five.
This review ©2020 Joanne Fisher