Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

I received a free copy of the ebook from NetGalley to review, on behalf of the publisher. 

16270572It’s Jim Hines’s fault that I picked this book up. His delightful Libriomancer referenced Le Fanu’s vampire. So when I saw that Syracuse University Press was coming out with a critical edition and that I could get a copy from NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to take a look at another variety of Gothic vampire. I’m glad I got to read this edition of Carmilla, edited by Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, because it came bundled with a great introduction and four critical essays that helped to put Sheridan Le Fanu’s work in it’s historical, social, and cultural contexts. Without those, I would have written a complete pan of the book here.

Originally published as a serial between 1871-1872, Carmilla is a novella (almost a long short story) of a young English expat named Laura and her encounters with the Styrian vampire Carmilla. The story is told through the offices of a narrator, who has collected the testimony of Laura and the vampire-hunting peer that helped rid the area of the predatory menace. The bulk of the story is told from Laura’s perspective, as she meets Carmilla and falls victim to her before switching over the vampire hunter for the abrupt conclusion. That’s really about all there is to the plot.

Carmilla and her victim. Nothing sexy about this, right?

What thrills in this book (in the older sense of the word, not in the sense of entertainment) is the relationship that Carmilla builds with Laura. To modern eyes, it’s highly homoerotic. To the point where I felt like I was being slapped in the arse by a rolled up rainbow flag. Any modern reader would pick up on it. I daresay that there were a lot of raised eyebrows over those sections of this story by its original readers. With the original illustrations, only the most profound denialists would have missed it. Even Laura feels unnerved by Carmilla’s professions of love for her and wants some emotional distance from her unexpected house guest.

One of the essays in the book, “An Irish Carmilla?” by Jar Lath Killeen, attempts to create a political and ethnic context for Carmilla. Killeen tries to show that Carmilla is a symbol of the Irish and that Laura represents the Anglo-Irish gentry. But, it’s a stretch in my reading of the book. No fault to Killeen, who makes the case with many citations to the historical context of Sheridan Le Fanu’s world. I didn’t see any of it in the text itself. The essay that made the most sense to me in my interpretation of the book was Renée Fox’s essay, “Carmilla and the Politics of Indistinguishability,” which paints Carmilla in terms of gender transgressions. This essay was much more persuasive to me, even without all the references to other critical interpretations of Carmilla and Sheridan Le Fanu. Fox writes:

In other words, if Carmilla seems to take on both feminine and masculine roles, then…the Irish Catholicism she is meant to represent appears that much more perilous: imbued with all the domestically destabilizing power of the dominant female, all the socially transgressive power of the homosexual, and all the emasculating power of the sexual usurper.*

But if this reading is right, it suggests to me that the strangely anti-climactic ending is Sheridan Le Fanu chickening out over what he created and just letting the menfolk sort Carmilla out with a stake and an axe. After chapters and chapters of building suspense and dread, Carmilla just…ends.

Even though there are some references to the reaction to the book in 1872, I suspect there were a lot of male readers forbidding their female relatives and servants from reading this book because of its potentially corrupting influence. I don’t think many modern readers will pick this book up for its own sake; it’s sort of the book only a critic could love these days.


* Kindle unpaginated version. Quote begins at location 1567.


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