Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we continue with J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, first published as a serial in The Dark Blue from 1871 to 1872, with Chapters 3-4. Spoilers ahead!
“You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”
After the mysterious carriage speeds away, the young lady left behind awakens; hearing that “Mamma” won’t return for three months, she weeps. The governesses comfort her, then lead her to the castle. Later in the drawing room, Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De Lafontaine enthuse over their young guest, so beautiful and gentle, with such a sweet voice. Not so prepossessing were “Mamma’s” cortege. Mademoiselle spied inside the carriage a “hideous black woman” who grinned derisively at the ladies, “her teeth set as if in fury.” And “Mamma’s” manservants were “ugly, hang-dog looking fellows… strangely lean, and dark, and sullen.” Laura’s father says “Mamma” confided that her daughter was in delicate health, nervous, but “in fact, perfectly sane.” Laura thinks this an odd thing to volunteer.
After a physician reports their guest over the shock of the accident, Laura eagerly visits, but recoils at the bedside: The girl’s beautiful face is the very same she saw in her childhood nightmare! The guest gives her a “strange fixed smile of recognition,” then marvels at how she dreamed of Laura as she appears now, a young woman, though at the time of their apparently simultaneous dreams both were only six. The guest concludes they were destined to be friends. Does Laura feel as “strangely drawn” to her as she feels towards Laura? Laura does indeed, though “something of repulsion” dilutes the attraction.
The guest declines any overnight attendance and desires to lock the bedroom door—ever since her house was robbed, she’s taken that precaution. With a fond embrace, she sends Laura off flattered by her desire that they become “very near friends.”
Laura is mostly charmed with her new friend. She admires her slender grace, brilliant complexion, lustrous dark eyes and magnificently thick brown hair; except for her languor of movement, she seems no invalid. Though her father warned that their guest would preserve her Mamma-imposed secrecy, Laura’s disappointed in her evasiveness. All she confides is that her name is Carmilla, her family is ancient and noble, and her home lies to the west. Eventually, she promises, Laura will know all.
The girls’ friendship thrives. At infrequent intervals, however, Carmilla confuses Laura with the fervor of her embraces. “I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine” is but one of her passionate declarations. In Carmilla’s arms, with Carmilla’s kisses on her cheek, Laura feels as if she’s in a trance of “strange tumultuous excitement… mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust,” of “love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence.” She asks Carmilla if they can be related, if she reminds Carmilla of someone else that she loves. She wonders if Carmilla could be a male admirer disguising himself to be close to her, but that’s mere romantic fantasy.
Also curious is how Carmilla never comes down until one in the afternoon and then takes only a cup of chocolate. They walk together afterwards, but languid Carmilla must soon rest. Sometimes she recounts childhood stories that make Laura think her native country must be remote, its people and customs strange. One afternoon they watch the funeral procession of a young girl. Out of respect, Laura joints the mourners’ hymn. Carmilla begs her to stop—to her, the music is discordant, and how can Laura assume their religions are the same, and beyond that, Carmilla hates useless fuss when everyone must die and all are happier when they do. Laura describes how the deceased girl fancied she saw a ghost, then declined to her death. A similar illness has struck and carried off a swineherd’s young wife. Laura’s father hopes no plague encroaches. As if herself sickening, Carmilla turns livid and shudders violently. Eventually her hysteria subsides, and her usual animation returns.
One other time, Carmilla displays unaccountable anger. A hunchbacked peddler well known to the castle arrives laden with curiosities and nostrums. He fiddles and dances, incongruously accompanied by the howling of his dog, which hangs back beyond the drawbridge. He then sells the girls slips of vellum covered with cabalistic ciphers to protect them from the “oupire” which is “going like the wolf” in their vicinity. All’s amusement until the mountebank offers Carmilla cosmetic dentistry for her long, sharp tooth. Outraged, Carmilla withdraws. Her father, she declares, would have had the wretch flogged and branded for daring to insult her so!
Laura’s father, on the other hand, is more concerned with the illness of a third peasant girl supposedly beset by a ghost. The peasants, of course, infect each other with their superstitions, whereas in truth all things are in “God’s hands.”
Carmilla’s response is vehement. Not God but Nature is the cause of all things on earth. Long ago, she suffered from this very illness. Obviously, though not through any doctor’s efforts, she recovered. Later Carmilla asks Laura if she’s afraid of the plague. Laura admits she’d be afraid to be attacked like the other girls; like everyone, she’s afraid to die. Ah, says Carmilla cryptically, but how about to die as lovers may, to live together afterwards? Girls are like caterpillars while in the world, to become butterflies when summer comes.
The local physician speaks in private with Laura’s father. Later Laura overhears her father asking the man whether he also believes in hippogriffs and dragons. To which the doctor replies that life and death are mysterious states. Laura doesn’t understand at the time, but thinks she can guess the doctor’s meaning now.
This Week’s Metrics
By These Signs Shall You Know Her: Carmilla is repulsed by hymns, and expresses shockingly atheist ideas. Dogs fear her. She has a pointed tooth “like a needle.” And she certainly drinks blood, unless there’s another oupire wandering around preying on youthful ladies. Unlike many modern vampires, though, she walks freely in daylight (even if she sleeps late) and has a pulse.
The Degenerate Dutch: Is it okay that Carmilla’s unpleasant nature is foreshadowed by the “hideous black woman” hidden in her coach, and the wicked dark attendants around the accident? It is not.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Carmilla’s “mother” volunteers that she has delicate health but is “perfectly sane.” Laura wonders, first at why she felt the need to say that, and later whether it’s actually true.
Who’s got the melodramatic idiot ball this week? Definitely Laura’s father, who really should have questioned a young lady dropped abruptly on his doorstep with absolutely no information about her background, and deep and deliberate secrecy regarding her origins or goals. And whose mother couldn’t possibly wait two minutes for her to open her eyes. I mean, yes, the requirements of hospitality, but at the same time not all mysterious visitors are angels, or even Odin. As for Laura, she’s young and lonely and can be forgiven for overlooking her sole companion’s creepy eccentricities.
Carmilla herself… could maybe be a little subtler about those eccentricities. On the other hand she gets points for jumping in first on the whole “I dreamed of you and it was scary, goodness you’re both attractive and repulsive” thing. Some nice vampiric manipulation there. That sort of cleverness does not seem to be her usual modus operandi, which leans heavily on the undying monster version of “But I’m so cute.”
Her physical attractiveness does work awfully well. Le Fanu is doing an interesting thing here, because the default Victorian assumption is that beauty reflects goodness, while sin twists the body along with the soul. Think Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. So the way everyone describes Carmilla’s beauty as an important aspect of her likeability isn’t quite as shallow as it comes off to the modern reader. (Not that we moderns don’t do this, but it tends to be more of an unconscious bias—or a conscious one—than a core spiritual belief.)
It would be nice if Carmilla’s true nature wasn’t hinted at by ugly, “dark” attendants, but there’s only so un-Victorian Le Fanu’s going to get. He does provide a disabled peddler/entertainer/dentist who not only seems like a decent guy, but picks right up on Carmilla’s fangs. Much to Carmilla’s annoyance, though admittedly I too would be offended if someone described me as having “the tooth of a fish.” Tell her they look like tiger’s teeth; girls like that.
Also a hint to Carmilla’s nature: that tapestry of Cleopatra with her asp. If you haven’t seen the Shakespeare, his Cleopatra is a literal drama queen. She moons passionately over Antony (it’s mutual), she whips servants who bring her bad news, she flings herself into and out of battles on a whim. She’s a lot of fun to watch, from a distance. Ditto Carmilla. We see little of her everyday play, and much of her “foolish embraces” which ostensibly don’t happen that often, but I don’t buy it. She’s made of passionate-yet-ominous declarations of devotion. “I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine.” Not exactly what you want to read on a Valentine’s Day Card.
Attraction-repulsion may be the order of the day, but it’s not exactly ambiguous that the lesbianism here is intended to horrify even as it titillates. Laura, good girl that she is, may fantasize that Carmilla is really a male suitor in disguise, but doesn’t actually, mostly, appreciate the lady’s advances (even if the fantasy interests her vanity). It’s not only Carmilla’s actual femininity—reflected in her ineluctably un-masculine languor—that makes her ardor unpleasant. She reminds me a great deal of intensely clingy “friends” who embrace and declare their adoration under a veneer of plausible deniability.
I was pretty vulnerable to that at eighteen, and so is Laura. Still, she’d much rather be playing with her friend’s gorgeous hair than suffering her kisses. Um.
The year 1798 saw the opening salvo of the Romantic movement in British poetry, and it was a loud one: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published their collection Lyrical Ballads. One ballad absent from this first edition was Coleridge’s “Christabel,” a long narrative poem for which he planned five parts. From the second edition of 1800, “Christabel” was again missing. Coleridge had finished only Parts I and II, and Wordsworth advised against including an incomplete poem. Wordsworth, as usual, prevailed. Coleridge, as usual, was left doubting his abilities as a poet. He contended he was distracted by too many ideas for the ending; opium, his personal demon in tandem with self-doubt, may also have contributed to his difficulties.
When “Christabel” finally appeared in an 1816 pamphlet, it remained unfinished.
Too bad! Our innocent heroine Christabel, praying in the midnight woods as one does, meets maiden-in-distress Geraldine, who has escaped from brigand abductors. Not wanting to disturb the household, Christabel proposes Geraldine share her chamber for the night. The print below is by illustrator Lancelot Speed, for Andrew Lang’s 1891 collection of fantastic verse, The Blue Poetry Book.
Christabel looks on from bed as Geraldine prepares to shed her robes and join her. Steamy stuff, and maybe Lang would have shown us more of Geraldine, if Coleridge had provided a less ambiguous description of the moment:
Like one that shuddered, she [Geraldine] 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!
Could Geraldine have a nasty rash, or taboo tattoos, or (my favorite notion) the splendid if terrifyingly extraspecific hide of a reticulated python? We’ll never know, and maybe that’s not altogether a bad thing. What’s left unspeakable can be a powerful stimulant for the reader’s imagination.
I’m far from the first to assume that Le Fanu read “Christabel.” In 1949, Arthur Nethercot wrote an essay comparing Carmilla to the poem. He found “so many strange parallels” between the two works that either Le Fanu had interpreted “Christabel” as Nethercot did (as a vampire story) or else he and Coleridge were influenced by the same sources. Parallels indeed! Speed’s illustration could pass as one for Carmilla. A search for images of “Christabel” will include a D. H. Friston illustration of Laura and Carmilla reacting to a girl’s funeral procession.
Like Christabel, Laura is an innocent young thing whose mother died when she was too young to know her and who is now her widowed father’s darling. Like Geraldine, Carmilla presents as a distressed damsel as innocent as her hostess; such is the credibility of each lady-guest that the two widowed fathers shelter them with little hesitation. Nor are their personal charms lost on the respective sires. The guests’ true erotic-romantic objects, however, are the daughters, and neither author is coy about the situation. But ultimately, what’s love got to do with it? Geraldine and Carmilla are predators fully aware of their own nature and the fate of any lamb that lies down with them. Geraldine exhibits more hesitation, more advance remorse; Carmilla seems more merciless, but she may protest too much in declaring that death is all, that Nature (presumably “red in tooth and claw”) is our only “god.” Christabel and Laura are united in their simultaneous attraction to and revulsion from their new high-maintenance companions, so fascinating, so draining. Isolated castles and dark forests make for equally atmospheric settings in the Gothic tradition. Also co-present are such critical tropes as demon-sensing dogs and the demon’s aversion to prayers.
It’s a good thing for Carmilla that the only dog around her hosts’ schloss appears to be the peddler’s scruffy mutt. If only Laura had a pet spaniel! A cat wouldn’t necessarily suffice. Felines are unreliable monster-detectors unless you understand that their reaction may be sympathetic rather than antipathetic—recall the vampire-friendly cat in Benson’s “Room in the Tower.”
Speaking of the peddler—why doesn’t anyone else notice Carmilla’s needle-pointy fangs? His perspective is skewed since he views the girls in a window, himself below them on the lawn. Or maybe this huckster doesn’t sell fake anti-oupire charms because he has no psychic ability. Maybe he sees through Carmilla’s disguise and offers to trim her fangs to alert Laura of her danger without an outright accusation.
Another puzzlement. I assumed that Laura wrote her account directly to Dr. Hesselius. But in describing Carmilla’s odd habit of spending the whole forenoon in her room, Laura concedes that the practice might not seem “so singular in the opinion of a town lady like you.” Surely Hesselius is no lady. So who is her original correspondent? If another woman, it could explain why Laura is so open, so little constrained, in detailing her relationship with Carmilla.
Or is the “town lady” correspondent just an artifact of some earlier draft? Or, or, or. Comment below!
Next week, we sample some cryptozoology in translation. Join us for the first chapter of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China.
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden comes out in July 2022. She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.