Written by: Daniel W Cheely
Of all the supernatural entities within the horror genre, ghosts are my favorite. There’s something enigmatic about the specter that I find appealing. Free from the constraints of solidity, it is able to take on many shapes and appearances. It can be visible or invisible, symbolic or literal; as sightful as a passing shadow or as elusive as disembodied emotions. A well-written ghost story should foster its specters within this complexity so that the mystery surrounding their nature is important to the story’s scare factor. The ghost stories of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu succeed on these measures. He is often considered the best when it comes to ghost stories of the Victorian period.
Carmilla by LeFanu is a story about a vampire, not a ghost. However, I loved it, partially because LeFanu uses much of the same criteria for this vampire novella as he does for his ghost stories. The vampire of this story, Carmilla, a dark-eyed maiden with arresting beauty, possesses many traits associated with a ghost. She moves through walls. She vanishes into thin air. She appears at the foot of her victim’s bed in a shadowy form. She is the embodiment of eternal cravings; of longing and loneliness. There is mystery surrounding her identity. A noble family accepts her into their castle for a temporary stay. She immediately bonds with the nobleman’s daughter, Laura, the narrator of this tale. But she refuses to speak of her past and or her future. She seems to care only about her immediate activities; her intimate chats with Laura, her observances of the countryside that surrounds her. She is prone to long solitary walks among the trees. Sometimes she disappears for hours and even days.
This novella was written sometime between 1871-1872, predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This would make it not my mother’s vampire story, not even my grandmother’s vampire story but perhaps my great-grandmother’s vampire tale. It is an old story, but please do not equate its age with prudence and restraint. In fact the opposite is true. The vampire of lore has evolved considerably over the years, for good or for ill. Authors of modern vampire sagas have explored several creative avenues, but in doing so, they have driven us far, far away from the horrific creatures that rise from the dead in Gothic gloom. Every once in a while (for me its “several times in a while”) we must retrace the roots of vampire lore in order to reconnect with the more primal story archetypes for which the forbearers of horror have leant their souls. A reading of Carmilla serves nicely in this regard.
Modern vampires have lost their edge. They serve as crushes for teenage girls and sparkle like diamonds. They appear as cartoon caricatures on cereal boxes. They are the inspiration for glam-based dance music that we call “Goth”. Lest we forget, vampires are the “undead;” loved ones who have returned from the dead and have clawed their way out of sealed tombs in doing so. Such descriptions take place in Carmilla. Earlier I had described the appearance of the female vampire most pleasantly. Nevertheless, she has a gritty side to her appearance as well. When in the grave, she lies immobile with her eyes wide open, bathed in a coffin of blood.
Carmilla is a paradoxical entity. She is youthful and ancient, attractive and repulsive. She relishes in physical pleasure yet behaves like a spirit. LeFanu tells this story masterfully by permitting these complexities of character a stealthy flow. I found myself so captivated by the revelations concerning her nature that I had almost forgotten what I already knew – Carmilla is a vampire. In other words, I was able to put aside any preconceived notions as to what a vampire is supposed to be and allow Carmilla to define herself. I’m sure it’s quite obvious that I am fascinated with her character. Her vampire skills at seduction go beyond the page. She has ensnared me and she will ensnare you should you decide to read this compelling novella.
About the author: Daniel is an author of several books. He has a special interest for the haunted houses of film and literature and he loves to write on this topic. To learn more, please visit TheBooksofDaniel.com