Sunday, October 21, 2012

This Story Features a Victorian Vampire

"Carmilla," the Sheridan Le Fanu vampire story that I mentioned in my last post, is so interesting that it deserves its own post. It was published in 1872. It influenced Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it's also the ancestor of Twilight and "Vampire Diaries" and a lot of other modern vampire stories. "Carmilla" is the story of two teenagers in love, except that one of them is not actually a teenager, but a centuries-old vampire.

(Illustration by Michael Fitzgerald, 1872, of Carmilla and Laura.)

Carmilla is a lot like any vampire of today: she has a mysterious beauty, she doesn't talk about herself or her past, she sleeps late into the day, and she doesn't seem to eat (although she does enjoy a daily cup of hot chocolate). She seems to love the human girl Laura, but she has the classic vampire problem that she also wants to drink her blood and kill her. Which she expresses by saying disturbing things to Laura, like, "If your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die -- die, sweetly die -- into mine." Run, Laura! But Laura never appears to be scared, even though Carmilla keeps mentioning her death. Maybe in a Gothic castle in 1872, this is a normal topic of conversation.

(Illustration by D.H. Friston, 1872.)

In "Carmilla," everyone lives in a castle. Laura's family has a wonderful castle with a moat full of swans and water lilies, and Carmilla attends a fantastic masquerade ball in another castle:

(A masquerade ball, as depicted by Thomas Rowlandson in 1809.)

"The grounds were thrown open, the trees hung with colored lamps. There was such a display of fireworks as Paris itself had never witnessed. ... As you wandered through these fantastically illuminated grounds, the moon-lighted chateau throwing a rosy light from its long rows of windows, you would suddenly hear these ravishing voices stealing from the silence of some grove, or rising from boats upon the lake."

(Chinese Lanterns at Night, Thomas Watson Ball, 1863-1934.)

Obviously I love that. I always love elaborate settings in stories, and that's one good thing about vampires, both the 19th-century and the modern variety: they tend to live in really cool places.

(Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, J.M. William Turner.)

But what fascinates me most about "Carmilla" are all of the things it says about vampires that didn't catch on. There are lots of them, so I've provided a list:

(Edward Ardizzone's illustration of "Carmilla" from 1929.)

1. Vampires can turn into giant black cats.

2. Vampires seem to have only one pointy tooth. A traveling peddler comments on Carmilla's one "tooth of a fish," and when she bites Laura, it only leaves one small mark.

3. Vampires aren't pale (or sparkly), but they do have perfect complexions. And great hair.

4. Vampires tire easily and can't go on long walks.

5. Vampires talk a lot.

6. Vampires can numb you with their touch. If they grab your arm, you might lose the use of it.

7. Vampires don't just sleep in coffins. They fill their coffins with blood and then submerge themselves. I can't believe that didn't catch on! It would make a great gory scene in a vampire movie.

8. And finally, the weirdest detail of all: vampires can only change their names if they use anagrams of their actual names. It works out for Carmilla, because her real name is Mircalla, and there are tons of anagrams of Mircalla that sound like real names. But if I ever became a vampire, I would be out of luck. (Zathebeli? Bezileath?)

(A print by J. Penston called "Masquerade," from 1849. Probably does not depict a vampire telling someone her fake anagram name. But it could.)

Maybe some of these details about vampires survived in the movies? There are several film adaptations of "Carmilla," but I haven't seen any of them. I have a feeling that most of them are pretty far away from the elegant world of "Carmilla," though.

(Um, WHAT?!)


  1. Another sort of vampire (and related to your point 6.) that didn't catch on is the non-biting one who just saps your strength by contact - have you read Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire (1897)?

  2. No, I haven't, but I need to! It looks fascinating.