Although the characters of Lord Ruthven and Varney made a lasting impact on the vampire genre, another surpassed them in impact and popularity. That character, Carmilla, was created by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu was born in Dublin, Ireland and was raised at the Royal Hiberian Military School. His father happened to be the chaplain there (Melton 357). At the young age of fourteen, Le Fanu tapped into his writing talent with an Irish poem, and his literary career began (358).
When Le Fanu embarked on his literary career, his first works focused on aspects of the Irish character. Most of these works were considered mediocre due to his inability to relate to his readers. He had a terrible habit of stereotyping the Irish masses because of his religious disagreements with them. However, he overcame this bad habit when he ventured into the world of supernatural horror. His story, “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” paved the way into this world as well as for his most famous work, “Carmilla” (Melton 358).
The story of “Carmilla” was published in a magazine called Dark Blue and as part of a collection in In a Glass Darkly. While critics disagree on which story in the collection of In a Glass Darkly is Le Fanu’s best, “Carmilla” is the one that achieved the highest degree of fame. The story was also the third vampire story to be printed in English and was even read by Bram Stoker. Perhaps because of Stoker’s interest, “Carmilla” provided a major foundation for the modern vampire myth (Melton 358). Next to Dracula, “Carmilla” became the second vampire tale most frequently brought to the move theater. Additionally, the tale created an adaptation for a made-for-television series on Showtime with the same name (357).
After such an introduction to the tale of “Carmilla,” one must believe the character herself to be of the endearing sort. Carmilla is an anagram for the true name of Mircalla or the Countess Karnstein. She also goes by Millarca from time to time in her immortal life. In her regards to her features, the Countess appears very young and of pristine beauty. Of average height, slender, and with extremely languid movements, she has a rich complexion and long dark brown hair. Her appearance matches her personality in that she carries herself with beauty and grace. She is invited to countless balls and is constantly in the eyes of high and noble society. Being the embodiment of grace and beauty eventually assists Carmilla in obtaining what she wants (Mascetti 163).
Little is known about Carmilla’s past. The only facts she will disclose about herself is her name, the status of her ancient and noble family, and how her original home lies to the west. She appears in the company of her mother and always strikes up a lively conversation with young women her age (Mascetti 163). Carmilla’s mother leaves her behind in the care of others due to Carmilla’s supposed bad health. It is in the care of others that Carmilla presents her true colors. She does not eat and passes the day away in her chambers. Her repulsion to funeral possessions is made apparent when she goes into a twisted fit of rage upon the sight of one. Despite all of these strange habits, people still flock to her, and Carmilla chooses to flock to one young female in particular named Laura. In fact, her deep love for Laura creates a lesbian relationship that eventually causes her undoing (164).
Since she was six years old, Laura had experienced strange incidents at night involving a pretty female being. After a chance encounter involving a coach accident at nineteen, Laura is placed face-to-face with that female being. The being is Carmilla. Carmilla is immediately invited to stay with the family due to her poor health and her mother’s urgent need to continue her journey. Carmilla is then given a room in Laura’s castle home, and during her stay, she quickly enchants the young girl. As time passes, a plague surrounds the area about Laura’s home. The plague is centered on young girls and causes them to waste away (Guiley 53). Also, during this time, Laura experiences nightmares, and after one particular dream about her dead mother, she runs to Carmilla’s room only to find her gone. Immediately, a doctor is dispatched for Laura, and he recognizes the signs of vampirism. Just like the angry men in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, those close to Laura want revenge and track Carmilla to her home of Karnstein with the help of a Bulgarian general. Carmilla is finally killed in a traditional manner with the use of a stake and the slicing of the head (54).
Polidori, Rymer, and Le Fanu all contributed to the vampire genre we know today. Each one built upon the other with the respective characters of Lord Ruthven, Varney, and Carmilla. Without their influences, we would not have Dracula and our modern treasures such as Interview with the Vampire or Twilight. Thus, much credit should be given to these early gothic writers regardless of their background or their other mediocre works.
Have a Blessed Mabon and a Happy Halloween!
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Checkmark Books, 2005.
Mascetti, Manuela. Vampire: The Complete Guide to the World of the Undead. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Vampire Book. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994.