Thursday, 19 August 2010

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

GENRE: classical vampire novel

A young Anglo-Austrian woman living at her father's castle is the narrator of this novella. When a mysterious and beautiful stranger is stranded at the castle in odd circumstances and becomes a guest, the heroine quickly forms a close bond with her --but she subsequently discovers that her "friend" has a dark and lethal secret.

This is a work of classical vampire literature, first published in 1872. If you are a lover of vampire literature, you should definitely go back to its roots and read Carmilla. It also reads fast because it’s more of a novella than a novel. I read it one sitting.

My review includes possible SPOILERS, but maybe they’re not spoilers to many of you.

The story is narrated by Laura, an English young woman who lives with her widowed father in a castle in Styria. One evening, a carriage accident happens near the castle and Laura and her father take into their care the two ladies who were in the carriage, a stunning young woman Laura’s age called Carmilla and her mother. The mother has to proceed with her urgent journey and she leaves Carmilla in the care of Laura and her father. Laura is thrilled to have Carmilla in the castle, because now she finally has a friend and is not so lonely anymore.

The girls - the innocent Laura and the intriguing Carmilla - become close friends, but Carmilla is a very secretive creature and quite strange too, for she sleeps during the day and sleepwalks during the night, and is angry with Laura when she sings a Christian song. Many clues start to appear, hinting at the fact that Carmilla is not what she appears to be.

The setting and the atmosphere of the novella are great, very engaging; the whole story is very atmospheric. Le Fanu chose a castle in Styria as the setting, and the fact that the story takes place in a castle, in a lonely place in the Austrian countryside, gives a special charm to the story. There is also something very haunting in the atmosphere all the time; you suspect that something will happen, but you can’t say how and when. The suspense builds up nicely and especially the mystery is the high point of the novella. I only regret already knowing who Carmilla was; I guess we, as modern readers, are robbed of the sort of reading experience the 19th century readers had while reading Carmilla.

Still, this is a great read, and quite unconventional, bearing in mind the fact that it was written in Victorian times. There is not only the element of horror, but also the element of lesbian love, which I find quite interesting. I’m used to Anne Rice’s bisexual vampires, but Rice wrote her stories in modern times, whereas Le Fanu published his novel in 1872. Since Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for being a homosexual, basically, Le Fanu was pretty brave in my opinion to write about lesbian love. It’s done very subtly, but it’s definitely there.

Here’s a passage describing one such slightly amorous encounter: “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 ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”.
(Carmilla, Chapter 4).

Eventually, strange things begin to happen, creating a lot of drama and putting Laura in a life-threatening situation. I really liked the drama. It’s different from modern-day vampire drama. It was refreshing to read a classical vampire story. I think as far as contemporary authors go, the one who got closest to classical vampires was Anne Rice. If you like her, you’ll definitely enjoy Carmilla. But really, if you’re a fan of paranormal (vampire) fiction, you should definitely read Carmilla. It’s a classic, really. This is a fun, mysterious story, with a healthy dose of 19th century drama.




Blodeuedd said...

Oh now I remember, I have head about this one :)
perhaps I should read an old school vamp novel

Chelsea said...

Sounds very interesting. Should be a breath of fresh air after all the Twilight.

Jan von Harz said...

I absolutely love reading your reviews as I learn so much about books and stories I have never been exposed to. I am definitely going to read this you have me convinced that I am missing out.

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

@Blodeuedd: Old school vamps feel nice.;)

@Chelsea: It definitely is a breath of fresh air after Twilight. It features real vampire and is really classical about them.

@Jan: Aw, Jan, thank you! I'm glad I can introduce new stories and even convince people to read them.;D

Unknown said...

Wow, fascinating stuff. I haven't read any victorian vampire novels although I am aware of the genre and that it was a consequence of $exual repression. I am a little blown away by this!

Bookalicious Ramblings said...

Ooh, this sounds great - if only it wasn't about vampires, heh!

Carrie K. said...

I hadn't heard of this one before! I linked your review to the challenge page. :)