So I’ve started reading Something in the Blood by David J. Skal, which is a very good biography of Bram Stoker. (By the way: I tried to sign up to be an Amazon associate so I could make some cash on linking these books but they canned me when no one bought anything so I dunno. Buy local!) It’s actually terribly engrossing and the author is a gay man himself, interested in that aspect of Stoker’s life. I’ll do a brief overview of the book when I’m done. We can do a chronological walk through Stoker’s life with Oscar Wilde and Henry Irving.
Before that though, the next chapter of Reading the Vampire is about Carmilla. I’ve already read the chapter but before I write about it I thought we should read Carmilla itself as a perverted little family.
I do have a little story about Carmilla. I’ve never read it, but my surrogate father—who I’ve mentioned before now—once came to me to ask if I’d heard of it. He knew I was a lesbian and we had been trading books and recommendations back and forth. I told him I’d heard of Carmilla and I hadn’t read it. We agreed to read it at the same time and he confessed he would feel less embarrassed to read a book about lesbian vampires if he was doing it with me. Dude had a lot of weird unexamined homophobia but I suspect in this case that he wasn’t sure whether to expect it to be sexy lesbian pornography or what. I’m not sure he read it before he passed away last year, so this one’s for you, Tony.
The author of Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu, was an Irish man, and we know for sure that Stoker read his work, although according to Skal, we don’t know when he may have read Carmilla, only that he probably did read it because Dracula exists. Makes me desperately want a pretty volume of all of his stories, though Carmilla appears to be the only one of his works to survive in regular publication, thanks to Dracula. It’s a novella, so longer than your average short story, but it’s quite dense to summarize so I think we might have to do it in three parts or so.
I got a hard copy for my personal nerdy library, but if you like you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg here. I’ll be grabbing quoted text from there.
The prologue is an interesting setting. It is a note by a mysterious someone who has gathered papers relating to a case documented by one Doctor Hesselius. Our prolographer abstains from commenting on it, leaving the intelligent perspective of Hesselius to lead, lamenting that the woman who wrote the correspondence is dead already.
So what I understand is that Hesselius published a research paper on what this woman went through. We proceed not with the paper itself, but only her account. I love obfuscation like this in stories. It’s very House of Leaves. Or I suppose House of Leaves was very Carmilla.
Our writer, Laura (unnamed as of now), explains in part 1 that she lives in Styria—a province in Austria—a place where people can live well on very little. She is English as her father is English, although she’s never seen England. Her father retired from the Austrian service and bought a little estate in Styria for cheap. (Hard to imagine “cheap” property these days in Halifax in 2023.) She writes about the setting in loving detail; moats, gothic cathedrals, a drawbridge she has never seen raised.
I have said that this is a very lonely place. Judge whether I say truth. Looking from the hall door towards the road, the forest in which our castle stands extends fifteen miles to the right, and twelve to the left. The nearest inhabited village is about seven of your English miles to the left. The nearest inhabited schloss of any historic associations, is that of old General Spielsdorf, nearly twenty miles away to the right.
A schloss, by the way, is a manor. I believe they usually refer to the castle house this way.
The craft of this writing is genuinely beautiful. After reading Dracula it feels luxurious as hell. There’s only so much of this relishing of the world around you that you can do in an epistolary novel while everyone is shitting themselves with fear. I feel like all the details of the setting are just so in the interest of the rest of the story to come, but if I’m to write it all down you might as well just read this novel yourself.
Our storyteller shares that she lives in the castle with her father and servants. Her mother was Styrian and died when our writer was a baby. Our author talks about a governess, Madame Perrodon, from Berne (Switzerland) who basically raised her, and Mademoiselle De LaFontaine, a “finishing governess,” a term that Laura understands about as much as I do. She says that at home they try to speak English to stay in practice. Madame Perrodon speaks French and broken English, but Mademoiselle De LaFontaine speaks French and German. “The consequence was a Babel, at which strangers used to laugh, and which I shall make no attempt to reproduce in this narrative.” She has a few friends and neighbors who visit, so she makes clear that she is not solitary, but also somewhat disconnected all the same.
She recounts one of her earliest memories of being about six years old and waking up alone in her nursery. Lonely, she began to whimper, but the face of a young lady peeked over the side of the bed. Laura is mollified to have company and the woman crawled into bed with her and Laura fell asleep. “I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly.” The woman flees, Laura believed, under the bed. She screamed for aid and her nurses and maids came but were unable to find the woman anywhere, which rightfully scares the shit out of them. However they can find no wound. The poor kid is so horrified by the event that someone watches her sleep every night until she’s fourteen, no matter what reassurances everyone gives her. She remembers a priest visiting and teaching her a prayer, and a doctor giving her medicine, so her terror must be pretty severe.
Laura goes on a stroll with her dad and he laments that General Spielsdorf, who was due for a visit, is late. He was going to visit with his “niece and ward, Mademoiselle Reinfeldt”, who Laura is excited to meet. Dad is glad they were never introduced because Miss Reinfeldt is suddenly dead. He lets her read the letter Spielsdorf sent where he is hysterical with grief. He seems to be convinced something killed her and is off to figure it out, but neither Laura nor her father fully understand. Maybe Spielsdorf will be by to visit in the fall, or maybe not.
They meet up with the governesses on the path and continue their walk under the light of the moon while waxing eloquent about the view. Mademoiselle De Lafontaine talks about how a bright, full moon is a time for the spiritual to be active and, I paraphrase, spooky shit to be afoot.
“The moon, this night,” she said, “is full of idyllic and magnetic influence—and see, when you look behind you at the front of the schloss how all its windows flash and twinkle with that silvery splendor, as if unseen hands had lighted up the rooms to receive fairy guests.”
Laura’s dad remarks that he is feeling blue and that a misfortune hangs over them, and then they hear hoofbeats approaching. Two horsemen and a carriage approach in a panic, complete with screams of a female voice in the carriage itself. Laura looks away as they crash against tree roots and opens her eyes to find the horses and carriage on the ground, and the two horsemen getting two women from the carriage; an elder one in velvet walks out on her own, and the second younger woman is pulled lifelessly from the wreck.
I approached; the young lady was apparently stunned, but she was certainly not dead. My father, who piqued himself on being something of a physician, had just had his fingers on her wrist and assured the lady, who declared herself her mother, that her pulse, though faint and irregular, was undoubtedly still distinguishable. The lady clasped her hands and looked upward, as if in a momentary transport of gratitude; but immediately she broke out again in that theatrical way which is, I believe, natural to some people.
Posting this as a quote because it made me laugh. I don’t know many people prone to theatrics like this but maybe it is natural to some.
The mother appears to be on a time-sensitive mission and cannot wait for her daughter to recover. She must leave her somewhere and come back in three months. Laura begs her father to take the girl in. Daddy dearest agrees and offers to host her. The mother refuses the offer of hospitality, but Dad reiterates that the nearest town is quite far, and that Laura could use a win. The mother takes Dad aside to share some words in private, suddenly unaffectionate and more stern, which surprises Laura and piques her curiosity. The mother and Dad talk for a few minutes before she approaches her daughter, whispers something in her ear, and leaves with her horsemen at a gallop.
The girl regains her senses and asks for “mamma” and “Matska.” Laura doesn’t get to talk to her before she is whisked off to a room of her own and settled in. Dad’s already sent a servant to fetch a doctor from the next town. The governesses see to Carmilla (I assume this is Carmilla) and when they return Laura asks all about her. They tell Laura that the girl is so pretty and anyway, Mademoiselle De Lafontaine asks if Laura or Madame Perrodon spotted the person who didn’t get out of the carriage. The prose didn’t remark on another person at all.
Then she described a hideous black woman, with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.
I’m only just while posting this realizing that this woman was described as Black, which, as this novel was written in the late 1800s, was probably not a politically correct term. Was she literally Black or does this mean something else? Anyway, this secret angry lady in the carriage seems too important not to note.
The governesses and Dad also mention that the servants looked strange too, but there’s some debate on if they’re just regular rogues or sick. The governesses rest assured that Carmilla will explain everything when she’s well, but Dad doesn’t think so. Laura is curious about what he and Carmilla’s mother talked about, and he summarizes that the mother was on a secret mission and, though she will be back in three months, no one will know where they came from or where they’re going. Dad hopes he doesn’t regret this but Laura is simply dying to meet her new friend.
The doctor comes at “one o’clock” (in the morning?) and reports that Carmilla is doing fine and will be happy to see Laura, who tears up the stairs right away. At once, she recognizes Carmilla from the dream she had as a six-year-old.
There was a silence of fully a minute, and then at length she spoke; I could not.
“How wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Twelve years ago, I saw your face in a dream, and it has haunted me ever since.”
“Wonderful indeed!” I repeated, overcoming with an effort the horror that had for a time suspended my utterances. “Twelve years ago, in vision or reality, I certainly saw you. I could not forget your face. It has remained before my eyes ever since.”
Nice save, Carmilla! Doesn’t get much gayer than that.
Carmilla tells her version of the dream, which is essentially the same as Laura’s. She was about six years old and awoke in an unfamiliar house full of unfamiliar things and empty beds until she found someone crying. In one of the beds was Laura herself, as she is presently, not a baby but the woman Carmilla sees now. “Your looks won me,” says Carmilla, and she crawled into bed with Laura to comfort her and fell asleep, but shortly after woke to her screams, fell from the bed, and awoke.
In trying to keep this Let’s Read lean, I’m unfortunately not saying enough about how much the prose goes on about how pretty Carmilla is. Even Carmilla’s story goes on about how pretty Laura is. It’s extremely gal pals is what I’m saying. Laura shares her dream with Carmilla and Carmilla is like “I guess our friendship was destiny.” Really, if I copy all the gay shit I’ll just be posting most of the book but I need to show you what I’m dealing with here:
Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, “drawn towards her,” but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.
“There was a sense of danger but also she was so hot.” I think I made a joke about being nervous before a hookup with Dracula and Jonathan but this relationship has more genuine attraction. Jonathan at his core was just at the castle for work. It’s immediate that Carmilla and Laura have something spicy going on.
Carmilla seems tired so Laura goes. They have a maid to look over her but Carmilla says she can’t sleep with anyone around after once surviving a break-in that killed two of her servants. She’d rather be alone and lock the door. They embrace and Carmilla lets Laura go, though they agree that parting is hard.
Young people like, and even love, on impulse. I was flattered by the evident, though as yet undeserved, fondness she showed me.
Their feelings of fear and anxiety toward each other are as mutual as their carnal and emotional attraction.
Laura decides to go into how she thinks Carmilla is awesome, and also not so awesome. Carmilla is gorgeous, not too thin and not too chubby, with dark eyes and hair dark brown and lustrous. In spite of being super hot, Laura is frustrated that Carmilla won’t tell anything about herself. Laura notes what she knows:
First—Her name was Carmilla.
Second—Her family was very ancient and noble.
Third—Her home lay in the direction of the west.
Now that I think of it, Laura hasn’t mentioned which language she speaks, but did note that her father and Carmilla’s mother spoke French together. I imagine the language choice and dialects might help you get some hints, Laura.
When Laura gets frustrated by a lack of information, Carmilla embraces her and mutters sweet nothings in her ear. Carmilla showers Laura with kisses (on the cheek) and Laura remarks that she does not like the embrace but can’t wriggle out of it. Her words are like a trance. In those moments Laura is excited, entranced, repulsed, disgusted, and feels “love growing into adoration” and also abhorrence. She’s confused about it even ten years later.
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.” Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.
Wow! This line, “breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration” is mentioned a lot in literature about this novel, but I think this paragraph is fascinating from top to bottom.
Laura, overwhelmed with this display, asks Carmilla if they’re related, which is funny. She asks if she reminds Carmilla of someone she loves, and asks Carmilla to knock it off, which frustrates Carmilla.
I had read in old storybooks of [disguises and romance]. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade, with the assistance of a clever old adventuress. But there were many things against this hypothesis, highly interesting as it was to my vanity.
Laura is so uncomfortable with Carmilla’s advances that she wonders if Carmilla is a boy, but Carmilla is so pretty and undeniably feminine when she isn’t creeping Laura out.
Carmilla doesn’t seem to play by the social rules that Laura understands. She gets up at one o’clock in the afternoon, eats chocolate, goes for a walk and then takes a nap, but even while her body is tired her mind is sharp.
There’s a scene where they watch a funeral go by for a girl that Laura knows, who said she saw a ghost and died two weeks later. Laura stands up and sings along to the hymn carried by the mourners, but Carmilla grabs her and tells her to stop, as she’s out of key. Laura goes on, and Carmilla complains that it’s not her religion, that she hates funerals, that everybody dies and it’s for the best, that she doesn’t care who the girl is because she was a peasant, and how talk about ghosts will keep her up at night, and who cares if young women have been dying? Carmilla pulls her away from the funeral road and asks Laura to squeeze her hand. She shudders all over, as if restraining a powerful urge, and then breaks through it. She blames Laura’s hymn for her suffering and asks Laura to hold her until the urge subsides, the first indication that she might in some sense not be in perfect health, and also the first time Laura saw her anger, though she can think of another time when they spotted a man through a window.
It was the figure of a hunchback, with the sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity. He wore a pointed black beard, and he was smiling from ear to ear, showing his white fangs. He was dressed in buff, black, and scarlet, and crossed with more straps and belts than I could count, from which hung all manner of things. Behind, he carried a magic lantern, and two boxes, which I well knew, in one of which was a salamander, and in the other a mandrake. These monsters used to make my father laugh. They were compounded of parts of monkeys, parrots, squirrels, fish, and hedgehogs, dried and stitched together with great neatness and startling effect. He had a fiddle, a box of conjuring apparatus, a pair of foils and masks attached to his belt, several other mysterious cases dangling about him, and a black staff with copper ferrules in his hand. His companion was a rough spare dog, that followed at his heels, but stopped short, suspiciously at the drawbridge, and in a little while began to howl dismally.
I’m posting that whole description because A: I am fascinated by this man and want to meet him in the next Tetsuya Nomura Final Fantasy game and B: Le Fanu fucking knows how to write. I keep being blown away by him. I need to have read all of his stories yesterday.
The man plays a song for them on the fiddle and sells the girls amulets to protect against an “oupire” (vampire). He offers dentistry to Carmilla, saying he can file down her fangs, which infuriates Carmilla, who storms off.
Yet another local girl is dying, and Laura’s dad is blue about it. He worries that people are scaring each other with irrational superstitions in spite of the sicknesses being of natural causes. Carmilla would rather not think of such terrifying things at all. Dad tries to comfort her with some religious talk, which enrages Carmilla. She yells at him but Dad doesn’t counter. He says the doctor will be visiting tomorrow and he’ll know what to do. Carmilla dismisses this as well, no doctor has ever helped her. She says she once had the illness that is going around, but she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. She takes Laura by the waist and leads her from the room.
“You are afraid to die?”
“Yes, every one is.”
“But to die as lovers may—to die together, so that they may live together.
I see that Carmilla is a frustrating contrarian who has to have things her own way, which is fun and interesting and also annoying as hell. I wouldn’t like her much either, even if she is super hot. But as a character in a novel I think she’s fantastic.
The doctor visits the next day and Laura hears him leave, talking to his father about death and legendary creatures.
I did not then know what the doctor had been broaching, but I think I guess it now.
The first third of this novel already took me as many words as my academic reviews often do, christ. I’ll be back next week with the next 50 pages BUT something in this part jumped out at me.
“You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”
These are Carmilla’s words.
According to Skal’s Something in the Blood, the working notes for Dracula feature this line:
This man belongs to me I want him.