Happy Halloween, everyone! In light of the holiday, this is the second part of my Hallowread of the Gothic vampire story Carmilla. You can read part one here.
Portrait of a Vampire
Continuing on with our profile of Carmilla, particularly in the context of its influence upon Bram Stoker, I would make note of a portrait mentioned repeatedly throughout the story, which was somehow acquired by Laura’s family. The picture is said to be of the late Countess Karnstein, called Mircalla. This portrait bears a striking resemblance to Carmilla, and of course it turns out that the two women are one and the same. One strange mannerism of the vampiress is that in taking on new identities (or perhaps in shedding previous victims?), she shuffles the letters of her name to create new aliases. At another point in the story she is called Millarca.
Physically, Carmilla is described as something of a waif – sickly, but beautiful, with golden hair and large blue eyes. It’s been observed that this has become a stereotypical look for female victims of the vampire, but I don’t recall how well this matches up with Lucy or Mina in Dracula. Certainly in more modern media, female vampires tend to be more sultry and, ahem, buxom?
It is noteworthy that Carmilla is said to look the same at the time of the narration as she did in the old portrait, which suggests a suspended or timeless physical appearance, or maybe an eternal youth. Dracula, meanwhile, ages, but seems to grow physically younger and more vital as he saps his victims of blood. This could be the case with Carmilla, but no specific mention or conjecture of this possibility is made in the story.
How they escape from their graves and return to them for certain hours every day, without displacing the clay or leaving any trace of disturbance in the state of the coffin or the cerements, has always been admitted to be utterly inexplicable.
Dracula exhibits many powers and weaknesses in Bram Stoker’s work, some of which have been faithfully adopted and adapted countless times since (such as the vampire’s inability to cross running water or his need to be invited into a home) and some of which have mostly been dropped over time (like his vulnerability to the Eucharist). In pop culture, Dracula can turn into a bat. In literary form, he could change his form to a number of beasts (creatures of the night!) as well as command them. In fact he commanded a host of powers.
This vampire which is amongst us is of himself so strong in person as twenty men; he is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages; he have still the aids of necromancy, which is, as his etymology imply, the divination by the dead, and all the dead that he can come nigh to are for him at command; he is brute, and more than brute; he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not; he can, within limitations, appear at will when, and where, and in any of the forms that are to him; he can, within his range, direct the elements; the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things: the rat, and the owl, and the bat—the moth, and the fox, and the wolf; he can grow and become small; and he can at times vanish and come unknown.
Carmilla, meanwhile, turns not into a bat but a great black cat thing.
[…] I saw something moving round the foot of the bed, which at first I could not accurately distinguish. But I soon saw that it was a sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat. It appeared to me about four or five feet long for it measured fully the length of the hearthrug as it passed over it; and it continued to-ing and fro-ing with the lithe, sinister restlessness of a beast in a cage.
She, too, seemed able to disappear or somehow turn very small, as she was able to leave her locked room even when it was under guard. In the story, Laura’s father explains this away as sleepwalking (and Stoker, perhaps inspired by this, made Mina a sleepwalker), but surely there is something more supernatural at play.
She also possesses a super strength, and perhaps also a ghoulish debilitating power. When she feeds upon her victims, they enter a story of sleep paralysis. Additionally, she is able to disable the General with a simple seizing of his wrist.
“One sign of the vampire is the power of the hand. The slender hand of Mircalla closed like a vice of steel on the General’s wrist when he raised the hatchet to strike. But its power is not confined to its grasp; it leaves a numbness in the limb it seizes, which is slowly, if ever, recovered from.”
I used the word “ghoulish” to describe this power because it reminds me an awful lot of D&D’s Ghoul Touch. I’m not at all sure that Carmilla was an inspiration for that, but it’s an interesting example of an undead sort of power.
Vampires in Carmilla are also vulnerable to spiritual weapons. Hymns greatly upset the vampiress, and it seems that the services of a priest are required to save a victim from succumbing to the germ.
I rose to mark my respect as they passed, and joined in the hymn they were very sweetly singing.
My companion shook me a little roughly, and I turned surprised.
She said brusquely, “Don’t you perceive how discordant that is?”
“I think it very sweet, on the contrary,” I answered, vexed at the interruption, and very uncomfortable, lest the people who composed the little procession should observe and resent what was passing.
I resumed, therefore, instantly, and was again interrupted. “You pierce my ears,” said Carmilla, almost angrily, and stopping her ears with her tiny fingers.
Interestingly, vampires in Carmilla are vermin. They are textually described as pests. This is reflected in how they reproduce.
It is the nature of vampires to increase and multiply, but according to an ascertained and ghostly law.
“Assume, at starting, a territory perfectly free from that pest. How does it begin, and how does it multiply itself? I will tell you. A person, more or less wicked, puts an end to himself. A suicide, under certain circumstances, becomes a vampire. That specter visits living people in their slumbers; they die, and almost invariably, in the grave, develop into vampires. This happened in the case of the beautiful Mircalla, who was haunted by one of those demons. My ancestor, Vordenburg, whose title I still bear, soon discovered this, and in the course of the studies to which he devoted himself, learned a great deal more.”
Vampires, while evil and terrible, are also somewhat tragic creatures. In this text, they most often (or always?) result from certain suicides. These wicked souls are the progenitors of the disease, who in turn produce more vampires.
And while vampires are notoriously characters of physical and sexual magnetism, there is also something revolting and repulsive about them. This is said about Carmilla and also Dracula. Like a parasite, the vampire latches onto a victim and develops a bond. And yet the body (or mind) strives to fight back, even if incapable of victory in this regard.
Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, “drawn towards her,” but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.
In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.
Down With the Sickness
While the common, blood-food victims of the vampire seem to suffer up to three days of sickness before death, the process being turned takes longer. This is one reason why Laura initially suspects nothing. She has strange dreams. As her condition progresses, she slips into into languor and apathy.
In the end, the medicine is spiritual – separation from the unholy infection (or temptation, if you read it that way) and prayer.
The sinister absence of Carmilla made the remembrance of the scene more horrible to me. The arrangements for the night were singular. Two servants, and Madame were to sit up in my room that night; and the ecclesiastic with my father kept watch in the adjoining dressing room.
The priest had performed certain solemn rites that night, the purport of which I did not understand any more than I comprehended the reason of this extraordinary precaution taken for my safety during sleep.
I saw all clearly a few days later
One loose end that Carmilla left unresolved was the strange lady who introduced victims to the vampiress, claiming to be her mother and imposing upon their families to take custody of her while she tending to life-or-death state business. Was this woman also a vampire, perhaps Carmilla’s progenitor? Or else some thrall or malicious conspirator? And what of their strange and ill-favored company of servants? Was this a coterie of vampires? Alas, we never find out.
Carmilla was a satisfying read. Much shorter than Dracula (actually novella length), it was a good length for its story. I’d say its first half was a little slow, but one doesn’t have to wait long for it to pick up. It was quite interesting to pick out elements that clearly inspired Stoker and later works and fun to recognize where he embellished and made his own way with the vampire.
If you’re a monster fan or have enjoyed other Gothic fiction, I definitely recommend checking it out.