The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 4: Carmilla and Company

The Vampyre’s Legacy, Part 4: Carmilla and Company
Journey into the literary origins of the vampire myth with this special series on "The Vampyre's Legacy." Part 4 discusses the genre's lusty return to the Gothic.

The previous installment of this series covered attempts to deconstruct vampire fiction during the mid-nineteenth century, with writers stepping back and seeing how vampirism could serve symbolic purposes. As the century headed towards its close, the time was right for the vampire to be reconstructed once again. With the more analytical works out of the

The previous installment of this series covered attempts to deconstruct vampire fiction during the mid-nineteenth century, with writers stepping back and seeing how vampirism could serve symbolic purposes.

As the century headed towards its close, the time was right for the vampire to be reconstructed once again. With the more analytical works out of the way, it was the perfect moment for stories that took vampires back to their Gothic roots.

1871-1872: Carmilla Comes to Stay

The literary magazine The Dark Blue did not last long, existing only from 1871 to 1873, but it boasted a range of distinguished contributors. Amongst these was Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, whose novella Carmilla was serialised during the first two years of the magazine’s life. The story would later become regarded as an enduring classic of horror fiction in general and vampire fiction in particular.

Michael Fitzgerald, Funeral, Illustration for Carmilla, 1872

The story’s main character, Laura, is the 19-year-old daughter of a retired soldier. They live together in a lonely rural castle; nearby is a deserted village that was once home to a noble family, the Karnsteins. One day a passing horse-and-carriage has an accident outside the castle, injuring a young woman on board. The girl’s mother is thrown into despair. She claims to have important business elsewhere, which she shall miss if she tends to her daughter. Laura’s father offers to help by taking the girl under his wing until the mother is ready to collect her in three months.

Unaccustomed to visitors, the household is delighted with their charming new guest, whose name is Carmilla. As Laura describes, “[h]er complexion was rich and brilliant; her features were small and beautifully formed; her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful.” Yet, despite this general appearance of health, “her movements were languid—very languid.” Another oddity is that Carmilla reminds Laura of an unsettling childhood memory:

I can’t have been more than six years old, when one night I awoke, and looking round the room from my bed, failed to see the nursery maid […] I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly.

This “solemn, but very pretty face,” she now realises, was that of her new friend. Carmilla replies with an anecdote of her own. “How wonderful!” she says. “Twelve years ago, I saw your face in a dream, and it has haunted me ever since.”

Carmilla claims to hail from a family of noble blood, but pointedly avoids identifying it. The mystery is solved only when Laura and her father come across a seventeenth-century painting of one Mircalla Karnstein and are surprised to notice an exact resemblance to Carmilla. The young woman at this point reveals that she is descended from the Karnstein family on her mother’s side.

As the days pass, the otherwise charming Carmilla displays a number of curious characteristics. She reacts with strange hostility to a passing funeral procession, which carries the body of a peasant girl who died under peculiar circumstances. Carmilla’s languid mood is also broken when a visiting mountebank, selling charms against supernatural creatures, makes impolite comments about the length of her teeth. Furthermore, she is subject to peculiar moments in which she expresses her fondness for Laura in close, physical terms:

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; 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. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.”

And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.

Meanwhile, mysterious deaths like that of the peasant girl continue to take place. An illness seems to have struck the country, an illness that Carmilla claims to have once suffered herself, a long time ago. Laura later has a nightmare-like experience—although she does not describe it as a nightmare, as she was conscious of being asleep—in which she saw a black shape in her bedroom:

I soon saw that it was a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat. It appeared to me about four or five feet long for it measured fully the length of the hearthrug as it passed over it; and it continued to-ing and fro-ing with the lithe, sinister restlessness of a beast in a cage. I could not cry out, although as you may suppose, I was terrified. Its pace was growing faster, and the room rapidly darker and darker, and at length so dark that I could no longer see anything of it but its eyes. I felt it spring lightly on the bed. The two broad eyes approached my face, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain as if two large needles darted, an inch or two apart, deep into my breast. I waked with a scream.

Upon waking, Laura sees the cat-like shape replaced with a female figure that stands at the foot of her bed before exiting the room. In the morning, Carmilla reveals that she had a similar experience. “I really thought, for some seconds, I saw a dark figure near the chimneypiece, but I felt under my pillow for my charm, and the moment my fingers touched it, the figure disappeared.” Meanwhile, Laura’s dreams grow increasingly intense:

Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing, that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious.

This culminates in an incident where Laura awakes to see Carmilla “standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.” She springs out of her bedroom for help, and returns to find that Carmilla has gone. When the missing girl comes back later that morning, she is unable to explain her absence. Laura subsequently sees a doctor, who finds “a small blue spot, about the size of the tip of your little finger” near her collar. Carmilla is a vampire, and Laura is set to become her latest victim.

Just as John Polidori based “The Vampyre” on an unfinished story by Lord Byron, Le Fanu appears to have taken the bare bones of Carmilla from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” a narrative ballad finalised in 1800. Perhaps significantly, Byron had read lines from “Christabel” to the Romantics gathered at the Villa Diodati, fostering the mood that inspired them to attempt writing ghost stories and, by extension, contributing to Byron and Polidori’s founding of vampire fiction.

In Coleridge’s poem, Christabel is a baron’s daughter who encounters a lone woman while walking in the nighttime woods (“Her stately neck, and arms were bare/Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were/And wildly glittered here and there/The gems entangled in her hair”). The woman introduces herself as Geraldine, and says that she has escaped from kidnappers.

Just as Laura’s family take in Carmilla, Christabel takes Geraldine home with her. Before long, weird happenings occur around the house. The dog lets out a strange moan in its sleep, and Geraldine reacts as though seeing the ghost of Christabel’s dead mother. But Christabel, ignoring these omens, becomes fascinated by the visitor:

But through her brain of weal and woe
So many thoughts moved to and fro,
That vain it were her lids to close;
So half-way from the bed she rose,
And on her elbow did recline
To look at the lady Geraldine.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

Christabel’s father, Sir Leoline, recognises Geraldine as the daughter of his former friend Sir Roland. The two fathers and their daughters gather in a happy reunion, during which Leoline’s bard announces that he has had a dream of a dove being attacked by a serpent. Geraldine then shoots an ugly look at Christabel who then begins hissing like a snake.

This curious incident brings the ballad to an end. Coleridge did at one point intend to continue the narrative, but exactly how the story would have developed is not clear from the text itself. In adapting Geraldine into Carmilla, Le Fanu clears up much ambiguity about the character by making her a well-established variety of supernatural being: a vampire.

As Le Fanu’s story reaches its conclusion, it embraces what were—by this point—the conventions of vampire fiction. Most notably, it introduces a character familiar with the phenomenon of vampirism in General Spielsdorf, a friend to Laura’s family. He reveals that he had previously met a countess and her daughter Millarca at a masked ball and agreed to take care of the girl while the countess was elsewhere. Millarca started showing strange behaviour once the General admitted her into his household, while his niece suffered in health. “My dear child began to lose her looks and health,” he explains. “She was at first visited by appalling dreams; then, as she fancied, by a specter, sometimes resembling Millarca, sometimes in the shape of a beast, indistinctly seen.” Laura realises that the behaviour of Millarca matches that of her companion Carmilla.

As he tells this story, the General takes his friends to the ruined village of the Karnsteins, reputed to have once been the home of vampires. They explore the village’s disused chapel while the General continues his story. He describes speaking to a physician, who offered a startling theory for his niece’s illness:

It was monstrous enough to have consigned him to a madhouse. He said that the patient was suffering from the visits of a vampire! The punctures which she described as having occurred near the throat, were, he insisted, the insertion of those two long, thin, and sharp teeth which, it is well known, are peculiar to vampires; and there could be no doubt, he added, as to the well-defined presence of the small livid mark which all concurred in describing as that induced by the demon’s lips, and every symptom described by the sufferer was in exact conformity with those recorded in every case of a similar visitation.

However, the General’s skepticism did not last long. While watching over his sleeping niece, he witnessed “a large black object, very ill-defined … swiftly spread itself up to the poor girl’s throat, where it swelled, in a moment, into a great, palpitating mass.” Confronting this shape, he realised that it was Millarca, and chased the girl out of his home, too late, alas, to save his niece.

Now, gathered together in the ruined chapel, the group catch sight of the vampire known to some as Carmilla, others as Millarca, and still others as the purportedly long-dead Countess Mircalla. Laura has no trouble accepting that her sometime friend is a deadly vampire and describes how Mircalla was exhumed and destroyed the next day:

The grave of the Countess Mircalla was opened; and the General and my father recognized each his perfidious and beautiful guest, in the face now disclosed to view. The features, though a hundred and fifty years had passed since her funeral, were tinted with the warmth of life. Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men, one officially present, the other on the part of the promoter of the inquiry, attested the marvelous fact that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed.

Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism. The body, therefore, in accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony. Then the head was struck off and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head were next placed on a pile of wood and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away, and that territory has never since been plagued by the visits of a vampire.

While Carmilla could be fairly described as a retelling of Coleridge’s “Christabel” mixed with familiar elements of vampire fiction, Le Fanu shows a skill that has helped Carmilla to outlive almost every other vampire story of its century and remain widely re-published to this day. One element of this is his ability to evoke dreamlike intangibility, Carmilla’s nocturnal attacks on Laura blurring reality with nightmare and corporeal girl with shapeless spectre.

Also notable is how Le Fanu hints that the vampire is just one aspect of a larger supernatural world. Carmilla is surrounded by characters who figure briefly before disappearing from the narrative: the woman who purports to be her mother; a pale-faced man at the masked ball; a dark-skinned woman seen inside Carmilla’s carriage. These individuals are, presumably, still at large when Carmilla is destroyed, leaving a sense of lingering unease, if only on a subconscious level.

Another aspect that accounts for Carmilla’s lasting fascination is its lesbian subtext. The story contains multiple passages which positively brim with Sapphic implications as Laura describes Carmilla’s moves on her:

She kissed me silently.

“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

I started from her.

Carmilla is one of the most frequently-filmed vampire stories, with adaptations becoming particularly popular once the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s made it easier for filmmakers to explore (or exploit) the narrative’s lesbian elements.

1886: Revisiting an Also-Ran

To more fully appreciate Carmilla, let us take a look at a much lesser-known vampire story from the following decade: “A Mystery of the Campagna” by Anne Crawford, published in the 1886 collection The Witching Time: Tales for the Year’s End.

"Mystery of the Campagna" by Anne Crawford

The story begins with painter Martin Detaille accompanying his composer friend Marcello Souvestre in search of a retreat that will suit the latter’s creative process. The two separate after an argument; days later, Martin returns to his friend and finds Marcello behaving strangely: he is aloof, refuses to discuss his work, and dines cheerfully on unpleasant food. Martin begins to fear that his friend is sick.

At this point another character, an English author named Robert Sutton, takes over from Martin as narrator as he tells his own story. By this point Martin’s concern for his friend has sent him into delirium; he spends his time raving to himself and singing snatches of Marcello’s music. Robert decides to pay the reclusive composer a visit and finds him clearly unwell. Marcello is hollow-faced, pale-skinned, and walking mechanically in the manner of a sleepwalker.

He pursues Marcello, who stops at a sarcophagus outside the old building where he meets and embraces a woman. Robert, who had been hoping to uncover a psychologically intriguing secret that could inspire stories of his own, is disappointed to find that Marcello’s strange behaviour is apparently the result of no more than an everyday romantic affair.

Meanwhile, Martin’s condition worsens. One night he becomes particularly agitated, and those assembled around him all witness a terrible sight: an apparition of Marcello standing in the doorway, pale and bloodless. They take this as an omen that Marcello is in mortal danger and may already be dead.

Robert and his companions rush to Marcello’s retreat, and after a search, they find the composer’s body with his chest exposed and a purple-brown spot above his heart. Nearby is a sarcophagus, along with a pickaxe and crowbar that Marcello had apparently used in an attempt to open it. In the hopes of solving the mysterious death, the party hefts the sarcophagus open and finds the perfectly-preserved body of a woman inside:

We saw lying there amidst folds of mouldering rags, the body of a woman, perfect as in life, with faintly rosy face, soft crimson lips, and a breast of living pearl, which seemed to heave as though stirred by some delicious dream. The rotten stuff swathed about her was in ghastly contrast to this lovely form, fresh as the morning […] As I looked, the red lips seemed to grow redder. They were redder! The little pearly teeth showed between them. I had not seen them before, and now a clear ruby drop trickled down to her rounded chin and from there slipped sideways and fell upon her neck.

In horror, Robert translates the woman’s epitaph: “To Vespertilia, the blood-drinker, the vampire woman.” Cutting a stake from the handle of the abandoned pickaxe, Robert slays the vampire in the time-honoured manner:

I looked for one moment at that white breast, but only to choose the loveliest spot, where the network of azure veins shimmered like veiled turquoises, and then with one blow I drove the pointed stake deep down through the breathing snow and stamped it with my heel.

An awful shriek, so ringing and horrible that I thought my ears must have burst; but even then I felt neither fear nor horror.

Despite a number of vivid images and atmospheric moments, “A Mystery of the Campagna” falls rather flat when compared to Carmilla. The key events occur in the background, the story showing us Marcello’s relationship with the vampire Vespertilla only at a distance. Its emotional core is instead the relationship between Martin and Marcello, and even this recedes from view when Robert takes over as narrator. The vampire, meanwhile, only becomes a distinct presence at the very end just as Robert performs her curiously necrophilic execution.

It is not hard to see why Carmilla is still remembered, while Vespertilla is all but forgotten. J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story is—for all its deathly themes—full of vitality from its dreamlike weirdness to its hints of forbidden affection. Where Anne Crawford provided a diverting footnote, Le Fanu gave new life to the vampire genre.


Vampire fiction had been appearing as a steady trickle since the publication of John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” in 1819. With the final decade of the nineteenth century, however, that trickle grew into a bout of copious bleeding as vampires become a noticeably popular topic with a range of writers.

And, as the next post in this series will discuss, one of those authors was an Irish-born theatre manager by the name of Abraham Stoker.

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  • LondonKdS
    April 17, 2019, 8:07 am

    And also the first appearance of that lesser-known weakness of the vampire, the delusion that nobody will notice blatant anagrammatic aliases.

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