While Dracula is the big, well-known vampire novel of the latter nineteenth century (and indeed, one of my favourite books), it was actually preceded by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. For years, I’d meant to read it, but it was only recently that I got around to doing so.
Surprisingly, despite having been a big fan Dracula fan for so long, I actually think that Carmilla is the better of the two. For me, I always liked the portion of the novel that focused on Jonathan Harker’s stay in Count Dracula’s castle – the setting is beautifully creepy, and being isolated from civilisation only helps to make it even more so. Though shorter, the entirety of Carmilla captures that feeling of early Dracula.
Set in a castle deep in a massive forest in Styria, this novel tells the story of a mysterious young woman named Carmilla who ends up coming to stay with the protagonist (a girl named Laura) and her family. The eerie atmosphere of the setting bleeds through into absolutely everything that happens, with many unusual events seeming to centre around Carmilla herself.
Speaking of, the enigmatic Carmilla is easily my favourite character in this. It’s a shame that her being about vampire is no secret to anybody these days, because leading up to that fact must have been really interesting back in the day, but as it stands, it’s still an engaging read even if you do know where it’s going.
Genuinely, I felt quite sympathetically towards Carmilla. I see her as a genuinely tragic character. Unlike Dracula, who comes across as much more of a plain villain, I, at least, really felt that Carmilla cared for Laura and was rather invested in their relationship. It very strongly suggests that the two of them are in love with each other, and for its time, that’s extremely progressive.
The negative response to Carmilla by other characters could be read as a parallel to the negative response to gay people at that time in history – although as I write that, I’m not sure how much I want to make the comparison between vampirism and homosexuality. There’d be some pretty unfortunately implications there, and I don’t think that author meant anything harmful by that, but it certainly plays with some societal taboos.
Anyway, I won’t say any more for fear of completely ruining the ending, but really I loved this book. The two things that a book can do to leave a big impression on me are: creating characters whose relationship I am invested in, and creating settings that have a really strong sense of place. Carmilla does both of these things, and it has vampires. That makes it pretty amazing in my estimation.