Predating Dracula by 25 years, Carmilla is one of the first stories to inform the knowledge of the vampire that persists in folklore to this day. Set in Styria, in Austria, the novella is presented as a study informed by letters from the protagonist and journal keeper, Laura. This is pretty common for early gothic literature, Frankenstein did it, Dracula did it, but the only mention of this being anything other than a diary is the note at the novella’s beginning which is somewhat swiftly forgotten in favour of vampiric lesbian subtext.
Yeah you read that right, I’ll get to that part.
The story follows Laura and her father as they take in a young woman injured in a carriage accident while her mother travels on urgent business. This young woman is Carmilla, and she has been sworn to secrecy regarding her family, history, place of origin and surname. Which is in no way suspicious at all, of course. Laura recognises the young woman from a dream she had as a child, and as Carmilla claims the same, the two women strike up a close relationship almost instantly. Now, there’s a lot of subtext here (told you I’d get to this bit). Carmilla declares often that Laura will be hers alone, kisses her and holds her close in fits of passion alike to love…and then there’s the fact that almost nightly since Carmilla’s arrival, Laura dreams that something pierces her breast. Three guesses what.
Carmilla is described as often tired and rarely waking up before noon. This is portrayed as odd, but given that she and Laura are supposed to be teenagers this really isn’t that odd. The story draws on lots of gothic traditions and themes, with the castle that is Laura’s home acting as its main setting, the nearby Karnstein estate crumbling into decay, the sudden visit of a hunchback selling magic charms, a veritable horde of sudden deaths and of course plenty of blood. I did enjoy reading this one, I love old-school gothic and it was interesting to see a vampire tale predating that which has come to define vampirism for over a hundred years. I wanted more of it. At 103 pages this was so short I finished it in a day, and I felt it left a lot unanswered.
Who was Carmilla’s mother?
What about the other lady in the carriage?
Why such an elaborate set up for what is essentially the vampire equivalent of lunch?
It seemed, in places, like I’d been given parts of a story as opposed to the whole thing. As though some portions of explanation or background had been cut out for the sake of brevity. On top of this the ending, which I won’t spoil for you, felt anticlimactic. I wanted someone to confront Carmilla about her misdeeds, but it ended rather mildly. Perhaps this is coming from someone who has grown accustomed to a certain kind of gothic, a certain kind of vampire, or perhaps the book was simply a little lacking.
For all that, however, I would recommend this book to fans of the gothic and vampire stories, and to anyone looking for a quick read. I am aware of the web series inspired by the book, and hope one day to watch that through so stay tuned for that (eventually)! Also if anybody wanted to make a tipping-the-velvet-style mini series of it, I’d be down for that.
Overall rating: 📖📖📖 3 books out of 5