Vampires in literature seem to have a cyclical popularity. Dracula makes a return every generation in film, proving he is indeed forever undead (though each re-telling seems to make him sexier and more sympathetic than the original). Starting in 1976 and peaking in the 1990’s, Anne Rice’s vampires became the be-all in vampire lore. Then came the Twilight saga in 2005, and yet another round of bloodsuckers were in vogue. The Sookie Stackhouse series, with its television counterpart True Blood, has also been a hit in recent years, though the novels have ended and the show’s run is apparently about to end after the next season.
Few know to what all these blockbuster successes have to thank for their existence. It all started with a little novella titled Carmilla.
Published in 1872, predating Dracula by 25 years, Carmilla is Vampire Version 1.0 in the literary sense. Told from the viewpoint of a young woman who befriends a mysterious lady who comes to live in her father’s home, it is a tale fraught with suspense, tension, and some overt lesbian-tendencies. Penned by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, it is the source from which all Hollywood vampires come.
Carmilla is narrated by Laura, the daughter of a wealthy English widower. When a carriage accident prompts the enigmatic and entrancing Carmilla to seek shelter with father and daughter, the lonely Laura is captivated. Carmilla returns the fascination, and the young ladies become fast friends. Their obvious attraction to one another must have certainly raised a few eyebrows in Victorian society, as that was the timeframe during which this novella was published. The era is probably also the reason why the scenes never become more scandalous in nature than this example:
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.
Beyond the sensual camaraderie is a backdrop of Gothic darkness, however. Young women all over the village are dying in the night after wasting quickly away. Then Laura herself begins to fail in health. Tormented by nightmares of a dark creature that lies on her body, eliciting a smothering sensation, Laura begins to fade. Meanwhile, Carmilla grows all the more frightening to her, though for reasons she can’t name.
Carmilla is the fiend by which I judge all other vampires. She walks during the night and sleeps most of the day. She does appear in late afternoon with no ill effects, though she seems weakened at that time. The original belief that people become vampires as a result of suicide is explained in this book, along with the horrifying truth of what one finds when the vampire’s coffin is opened. It is no wonder she served as a direct inspiration for Bram Stoker and Anne Rice.
The understated grotesqueness, sexuality, and terror are so much more effective than the many attempts at vampire fiction that have been made since Carmilla was written. It proves that graphic depictions of gore and sex are nothing compared to the psychological thrill of a well-crafted old-fashioned horror tale. This story sticks with you long after you close the pages. I highly recommend anyone who has not experienced Carmilla to do so. One warning: you may find yourself staring into the dark corners of your room when you go to bed at night, watching for any signs of movement.