Carmilla Summary

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu


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Carmilla Summary

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Carmilla is one of the first stories, if not the first, concerning vampirism. Written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish writer who is often compared to Edgar Allen Poe, this novella was originally published in 1872, thus predating even Bram Stoker’s famous tale Dracula, which is heavily influenced by Carmilla. A literary trailblazer, Le Fanu is a Victorian writer who is central to the development of the Gothic genre. Also a prominent ghost-story writer in the nineteenth century, he is best known for his gothic stories, of which Carmilla is arguably the best known.

Carmilla tales the story of a gorgeous and mysterious woman named Carmilla who, by chance, ends up residing with a young, naïve woman embodying sheer virtue, known as Laura. Carmilla has been in a carriage accident, and so is left in the care of Laura’s father. Though depicted as virtuous, Laura has been living a solitary life, holed up with her father in his isolated castle in the Styrian countryside. Perhaps because of this isolation both geographically and emotionally, Laura becomes enchanted very quickly by Carmilla and her mysterious personality.

The two women become fast friends. As their friendship moves forward, however, and the novel progresses, Laura begins having strange and haunting nocturnal visitations. Moreover, she begins to lose her physical strength for some unexplainable reason. In fact, troubling events all over the countryside are taking place, including strange deaths, nightmares and fevers. Other victims of this strange malady speak of feeling like they are being strangled in their beds by some unknown force.

Due to the troubling circumstances coupled with the mysterious personality of Carmilla, the strange ward is eventually investigated. Through these investigations, Carmilla’s abysmal family secret is revealed. The reader finds that Carmilla is in fact a vampire with needle-like fangs who preys on young women. Her friendship with Laura, though seemingly genuine, is an obsessed relationship that cannot possibly bode well for Laura.

Carmilla follows the well-known story of evil seeking to destroy good. And yet it is also a story that, though older and often used as the basis for many other vampire tales, is still fresh and haunting to this day. Many of the names and tropes in the story can even be glimpsed in Bram Stoker’s own Dracula. The isolated castle, for instance, is a popular trope. Also, Karnstein and Reinfeldt in Carmilla become Carfax and Renfield in Dracula, respectively. And yet Le Fanu’s Carmilla also adds intriguing brevity and expert storytelling as well. Dalliance is also there, including sexual overtones between the two women, a topic seemingly out of place in written literature of the Victorian age.

The novel itself is written in a simple, easy-to-understand tone. Many critics have noted that this stylistic approach lends to the story’s ability to draw its readers in to the macabre tale. Unhurried character and plot development also help the novella build up to a crescendo. This unhurried approach, coupled with expert storytelling, has also allowed the novella to read just as freshly after repeated readings as it does the first time around. As a template for Dracula and other vampire tales, Carmilla is also worth reading to see where the stories differ and how they mirror one another.

Carmilla is also noteworthy for the way it shocks and draws the reader in without having to use more modern-day tropes known to the vampire subgenre like gratuitous sexual scenarios and an abundance of gruesome deaths. In this way, Le Fanu is able to get the reader to interpret the pages and sentences of his tale with genuine thought and intellect, and in doing so, shows how good writing can effectively get under the reader’s skin, much like his characters, without succumbing to gimmicky artifice.