Saturday, April 13, 2013

Carmilla - A Gothic Horror Reviewed

It is hardly news to anyone that we live in a vampire obsessed society. The Twilight saga is barely over and they are already talking about a reboot. Then there are The Vampire Diaries that have been renewed for season 4 and True Blood is about to start their 6th season. So where does this fascination with the undead creatures of the night that suck blood come from?

'Dracula!' you say.

Oh, no! There is a vampire novella that pre-dates Dracula by 25 years and can be credited for starting the lesbian vampire genre, which I am told is very popular.

Carmilla  from Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 14, by Lisa K. Weber 

Created by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish Gothic writer, Carmilla was published in 1872 and tells a story of a beautiful young woman who becomes an object of desire and victim of a female vampire.   

~ ~ ~ Beware of Spoilers ~ ~ ~        

Illustration for Carmilla from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872

Our innocent protagonist Luara lives a quite and retired life with her father in a castle in Styria (Austria), when a mysterious young woman named Carmilla comes to reside with them. Laura is both attracted and repulsed by her strange new friend and her sudden and violent outbursts of extreme sensibility. Things start getting particularly sinister when a wasting illness hits the peasant girls in a nearby village. Laura is also affected and becomes languid and slow, just like her bosom buddy Carmilla. But all mysteries are solved and the villain is vanquished when a friend of the family, General Spielsdorf, who had lost his beloved niece to a similar affliction, comes to visit the family.
Carmilla is a truly horrid novel. And if Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey had been born a generation later, I am sure this would have been her absolute favorite. I cannot recommend it enough.The atmosphere is dark, heavy and spooky and vampire lore is a little different from what is considered canon today. The way the villain is defeated is particularly gruesome. And while our protagonist Laura is a little dull, Carmilla has plenty of layers.

 Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The Dark Blue, January 1872
Carmilla was by far the most engaging character in the novella. She appears to be sweet and innocent and is liked by everyone, but has inexplicable moments of rage. Her relationship with Laura is complex. On the one hand she is attracted to her and suffers from the knowledge that her passion will eventually kill her lover, but, at the same time, she almost revels in the knowledge that they are connected through love, death and blood. Carmilla is romantic and languishing, but also monstrous.

By the end of the story, Laura learns that vampires' desire for their victims resembles passionate love and that they often stalk their victims. Sounds familiar? I could not help but notice that the relationship between Edward and Bella from the Twilight saga closely resemble that of Carmilla and Laura. Both are very intense, stalker-like, obsessive and morbid.

Carmilla graphic novel, Gothic Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 14illustrated by Lisa K. Weber 

Many people find fault with Twilight for supposedly making vampires less monstrous and more emotional, brooding and, yes, sparkly. But to be fair, the handsome vampire type has been around since Polidori's The Vampyre and vampires of Anne Rice can out-brood anyone. Carmilla also falls into the tortured and brooding vampire category. And while sparkling may seem a little silly, there is a lot of common vampire lore that is just as asinine. Why are vampires afraid of mirrors, for example, as they are in The Last Man on Earth? Or what's with all the garlic? A good portion of spaghetti bolognese could kill the most powerful of them.    

The Moth Diaries, a YA novel loosely based on Carmilla, adapted into a film in 2011  

Twilight is often criticized for portraying an abusive and dysfunctional relationship as romantic and attractive. But based on Carmilla's example we could argue that vampire stories have always glamorized dysfunctional relationships. While Le Fanu probably wrote the lesbian subtext to titillate and scandalize his 19th century audience, that is not what makes Carmilla's relationship with Laura problematic. Carmilla's  passion for her victim is all-consuming, selfish , dishonest and very abusive. After all, the end result of it will be Laura's death.

That is why Carmilla reminded me so much of Twilight. In both stories, the vampire has obsessive, possessive and intense feelings for the human character. The stories, however, end very differently. While in Carmilla the vampire is destroyed and Laura is free to live her life, though she never quite goes back to being herself, in Twilight the vampire 'wins' and turns his lady-love into a vampire.

The Vampire Lovers (1970) based on Carmilla with Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith

Considering that Carmilla is a story about a vampire and her lesbian lover, I am very much surprised that Hollywood has not tried to cash in on this gem of a story in recent years. There have been quite a few screen adaptations of the novella or inspired by it, but none of them seem to have been all that memorable.

For all you aspiring screenwriters out there, take note, a script based on Carmilla could be your big break!

For those who want to read the novella, it can be found on Wikisource or Gutenberg.

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