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.
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.
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?
While 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.
They both resisted and they both fell prey. Mina was only able to revert because they killed Dracula.
— Bushi (@PCBushi) June 12, 2017
I 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!