Hallowread: Carmilla Pt. 1


Inspired by HP of Every Day Should Be Tuesday blog, for the past couple of years, I’ve done special, seasonal readings for Halloween. Two years ago was Frankenstein, and last year I explored several of Edgar Allan Poe’s shorter works.

Having already read Dracula and not wanting to tackle a reread of that thick beast, I decided this year to go with a lesser-known, but similarly important book called Carmilla.

Vampire Diaries

Epistolary stories were in vogue during the period of Gothic fiction. Dracula, Frankenstein, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – many prominent works of fantasy and horror were written as diaries or letters. The influence of this literary style can be seen in the works of proceeding greats like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was keen on a similar style of narration.

Carmilla recounts the story of a young noble woman who is victimized by a female vampire. It is told through diary entries, but in this case all from the perspective of the victim, save for a foreboding note that serves as the story’s introduction. If I remember correctly, Dracula intersperses letters and diary entries from several characters throughout the tale, and maybe even a newspaper article or two.

Ladies First

When it comes to all things vampire, Dracula gets the lion’s share of the glory, but Carmilla came first. Many of the vampire tropes that Stoker popularized were actually taken or adapted from Le Fanu’s work. I’d be curious to see how much Carmilla borrowed and stole from Varney the Vampire, a series of penny dreadfuls about a parasitic vampire that ran from 1845-1847. I was actually going to read the Varney stories this year, but there are so damn many of them that it would have been an impossible undertaking right now.

Anyway, I’ll expand upon this topic in Part 2, but Dracula’s powers and weaknesses greatly resemble those of his female predecessor.

Dr. Van Helsing, I presume?

Van HelsingWhile we’re talking about tropes taken from Carmilla and elevated by Dracula, let’s talk for a moment about Van Helsing. The good doctor, though often radically warped in adaptation, has become the archetype of the vampire hunter. In reality he was less a vampire hunter than an expert of many things, including vampire lore.

Carmilla’s chief antagonist, meanwhile, is an elderly general whose adopted daughter (his niece) fell prey to the vampiress’ wiles. Unlike Van Helsing, the general doesn’t factor prominently into the story until its later part. Additionally, the general meets and befriends an old noble who is the descendant of a hero vampire slayer. This baron is the vampire expert. It is he who aids the general in his quest to track down and end Carmilla.

Van Helsing is developed as something of an amalgam of these two characters with an added piety (which was actually a much more common character trait during the time the story was written).

I Should Have Known You Were Temptation

Critics and scholars have offered many theories about the messaging and themes of Dracula. Some say it’s about repressed sexuality or gender roles. I’ve seen people say that it’s about the unfaithfulness of women or that it’s a story about the xenophobia of Stoker’s time. For my part, I think aside from the standard battle of Good vs Evil, it’s a story about temptation and the nature of sin.

Last year Gitabushi and me and several others on Twitter discussed the themes of Dracula.

DraculaI think since reading Carmilla, I am a little more open to Gita’s interpretation – that the victims of the vampire are at least somewhat complicit, and in that complicity they are damned.

Either way you read it, though – whether Lucy and Mina are unwilling victims of Dracula (overcome by an evil beyond their power) or not; whether Laura and Carmilla’s other victims are deserving of their fate for giving into unholy sapphic attraction – there is an important element of spiritual warfare in play.

In Carmilla, funeral hymns cause the vampire pain. She does not attend mass. The only way to save Laura from death and vampirism is the ministration of a nearby priest.

Dracula takes this even further, showing the vampire to be powerless against Communion wafers and repelled by holy water the crucifix (HP pointed out below that holy water is never actually named as a sacred weapon in the novel). Whereas Carmilla is destroyed by a staking, beheading, and burning, vampires in Dracula also get a Eucharist wafer in the mouth to ensure they’re really dead and gone.

Vampires wield many weapons, their most deadly being that of temptation. Vampires, like evil, are parasitic. Whether or not their victims gives in, the only surefire weapon and savior is Christ.

This is the message of the vampire. Or it was, anyway, before the days of moral relativism.

More to come in Part 2, but for some more Halloween (and vampire-related!) reading, have a look at Amatopia’s obligatory 2018 Halloween post!


  1. I don’t think they ever actually use holy water in Dracula. It is always either a crucifix or Communion wafers.

    Something interesting and related happens early in the book. Jonathan Harker makes use of a crucifix even though he sees it as vaguely heretical.

  2. Coincidentally, I have read this story this weekend as well. Pretty good. Definitely influential, and a breath of fresh air after getting far too accustomed to the godawful modern interpretation of the Vampire.

    I’ve read Carmilla, The Vampyre by Polidori and Varney the Vampire, alongside a few other vampire stories and I’ve concluded this; even if they are very influential, they are still vastly inferior to Stoker’s Dracula. For me at least. Sure, it drags a bit at times, but the juicy parts more than make up for it, and Dracula is a far more memorable and frightening villain. The first three chapters, especially, are some of the most atmospheric gothic horror ever written on paper.

    Also, what is your favorite Dracula movie? I really liked the 1992 version starring Gary Oldman, but man do I hate how they interpreted Dracula in that one. And of course, Nosferatu (1922) is a masterpiece of the silent movie era. Still unmatched in some ways, honestly.

    • Dracula is a great book, indeed. Dracula himself and Van Helsing made for excellent characters. What I did like about Carmilla is the length. It was kind of a slow buildup, and for those of us who knew it was about vampires to begin with, I guess a little anticlimactic. I imagine it would have been a lot more exciting before the apex of vampire fiction. But it was short enough that getting to the parts with the general and the baron, which is when things got more exciting, wasn’t too much of a slog.

      Honestly I haven’t seen many Dracula movies. Gary Oldman is awesome in everything he does, and I remember Keanu Reeves being okay too, but overall I don’t remember being super impressed with that version. It was good, but not like a favorite of mine or anything. I’d like to go back and watch the Christopher Lee version at least, someday. Have you seen that one?

      • Yeah, I did. I’m a bit biased because I’m a sucker for old-school Horror movies, but I really enjoyed it. It has that slightly cartoonish yet dark atmospheric vibe characteristic of horror movies from those days(and that’s not a slight against it, since I love that kind of stuff). And like you with Oldman, I like Christopher Lee in anything he starred in.

  3. I’ve got to read this because most modern vampire literature and culture in general sucks.

    I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova on recommendation from my brother. I wish I hadn’t.

    • One of the reasons I have been reading mostly older fiction these days, I think. It’s not that there isn’t anything good coming out these days, but stuff is different…and it hasn’t stood any kind of test of time.

      I think some of the writers in the PulpRev group, for example, have potential. But there’s a lot of honing and refinement to be done.

      The only danger of the “test of time” is that there are plenty of great older authors and works that have become obscure just because they haven’t gotten the attention they deserved…

      • Excellent point. And whether by design or by accident, it’s a damn shame.

        Although, the way things are going, “problematic” works might very well be memory-holed out of existence.

        • I’m not saying that couldn’t happen, but with the internet now I’m less worried about that. It’s a lot easier to spread the word about great books and authors now than in the days of Astounding.

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