Monday, March 20, 2006

Classic Literature: Carmilla

More often than not, I will cite “Dracula” by Bram Stoker as a key piece of vampire literature. The reasoning is obvious, the book has never been out of print since its publication in 1897 and there are very few people that have not heard of the character, even if they haven’t read Stoker’s seminal work. A quick search on imdb shows over 140 movies with a full or partial name match to Dracula, not to mention those other movies directly linked to the book and/or character.

Another, less well known vampire story was by another Irishman, Sheridan Le Fanu and his story “Carmilla”, which was first published in 1871 as a serial in the Dark Blue and then complete in 1872, has had a defining effect on the genre also. It is clear that Stoker was aware of “Carmilla”. Le Fanu’s story is set in the country of Styria and, in an early manuscript, “Dracula” was also destined to be set there, until Stoker changed location to Transylvania. The deleted first chapter (according to Florence Stoker) of “Dracula”, “Dracula’s Guest” is still set in Styria.

Spoilers ahead:

In Le Fanu’s novella, a wealthy English widower retires to Styria with his daughter Laura. Laura awaits the arrival of a friend when General Speilsdorf, her friend’s father, sends a letter to say that his daughter has died.

There is then a carriage accident outside their home. Carmilla, the young passenger, is uninjured but her mother informs Laura’s father that she is on urgent business and cannot be delayed, thus arranges for Carmilla to stay with the family.

Carmilla is, of course, a vampire, and takes both a predatory and romantic interest in Laura – a brave move by the author considering when the story was written.

As Laura’s health declines so we discover some of the “rules” LeFanu introduces for his vampire. She sleeps often through the day, she is enraged by the singing of Christian hymns, she can pass through walls and takes the form of a monstrous black cat.

We eventually discover that the General’s daughter was killed by Millarca, Carmilla under an anagrammed pseudonym and the source of many film makers using the anagram of Alucard for Dracula, and they go to find Carmilla’s tomb. The tomb is that of the Countess Mircalla Karnstein and Carmilla is disposed of by staking through the heart, cutting off the head, burning the remains and scattering the ashes in a river.

Amongst the movies Carmilla inspired are a trio of Hammer productions “The Vampire Lovers” (1970), “Lust for a Vampire” (1970) and “Twins of Evil” (1971), the latter being the source of the still at the head of this piece. You can find the novella itself through Project Gutenburg and it is well worth a read.

See also my review of Carmilla: A Critical Edition


Anonymous said...

Yes, Carmilla is lushly atmospheric Gothic romance, a true classic.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I cannot disagree :)

Zahir Blue said...

I continue to hope that some day, some one will make a really top-knotch film version of this marvelous story.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Zahir, whilst I really love the Vampire Lovers production I can safely say you and me both

Kuudere-Kun said...

Allot of things in Carmilla are up for interpretation. I don't Believe the Christian nature of the singing is what bothered her personally.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Unknown, I think she is but the question is why? In this case her dialogue states that it is not her religion: "Besides, how can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me..."

Admittedly the 'besides' adds in a degree of ambiguity and therefore interpretation.

What do you believe bothered her about the singing?

Kuudere-Kun said...

I think it was guilt, he hearing them mourning her victim form the previous night. I'd always preferred to view Carmilla as one of the Tragic Vampires.

Kuudere-Kun said...

I believe it is her guilt that is bothering her during the singing.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Interesting concept and one that is a possibility. Sorry for not authorising straight away - I have been away a week

Kuudere-Kun said...

There is an Annotated Carmilla on Amazon.

Figured that might interest you since you've done a separate review for an Annotated Dracula.

It's editor has joined my Shadowmen Lounge.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi, Please always do mention anything you spot like this. In this case I already have the volume but haven't looked at it in a review sense as I wrote the preface for the volume :)

fenris said...

Self-publishing author David Brian has extended Carmilla into a full novel by adding a new storyline about werewolves. It's called Carmilla: The Wolves of Styria, with Le Fanu credited as co-author.

I haven't read it, so can't comment on it's readability, but my initial reaction is that Carmilla is one of the great vampire stories... so why would anyone want or need to include werewolves?!

Brian has also written a short story that's a prequel to Wolves of Styria, entitled Carmilla: A Dark Fugue.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Fenris, thanks for the comment and letting me know about this.

The original story is nicely rounded and so I can't see the attraction in expanding it (that said, The Un-Dead - an expansion of Dracula by Joel Emerson worked really well but he had access to Stoker's notes and expanded it using them).

Further I can't, like yourself, overly see the point in adding in werewolves - especially when we consider that at the time Le Fanu was writing there was little distinction between vampires and werewolves (though, of course, Carmilla's transformation of choice was a cat).

Difficult to say wwithour having read it though.

Anonymous said...

Taliesin, I had never heard of The Un-Dead: Dracula Rewritten by Joel Emerson. I'll have to check it out.

I thought you were referring to Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, a truly dreadful book, in my opinion.

As for werewolves and vampires, there is a massive distinction in European folklore. The main one being that werewolves are alive, while vampires are (un)dead.

I've read Carmilla: A Dark Fugue, and to be fair it is nicely written, and an interesting story.

As for Carmilla, it remains one of my favorite vampire tales. The ambiguity over Carmilla's true nature - is she a fiend, or is she too a victim of circumstance - is destined to remain an unanswered question.
A true classic!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I assume it is Fenris that has commented... you are right, Carmilla is a true classic...

The Dacre Stoker undead is alright, but very flawed and clearly not based on the actual novel more based on the 92 film... A case, iro Dacre Stoker, of famous because of family (and not deservedly so, as I know of nothing bar familial association that warrants his input into the genre)

Do try Emerson's reworking though

Kuudere-Kun said...

There is now a cool LonlyGirl15 style Web series adabtation of Camirlla on Youtube

They did the first season. Have you ever reviewed a Webseries before.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Jared, good to hear from you. I actually came across this just the other day but many thanks for sharing, its appreciated.

Yes, I've looked at webseries - its depended (on mood I guess) as to whether I've reviewed them or just looked as a honourable mention but I will be looking at this in the not too distant future :)