Sunday, October 6, 2019
Halloween Read: Carmilla (1872) - Audiobook
Author: Joseph Sheridan LeFanu
Reader: Tracey Childes
Growing up, I'd read that the book that had pre-dated Dracula and which likely inspired Stoker was Varney the Vampire (or: The Feast of Blood), a mid-19th Century penny dreadful that I've still not got around to reading. I think I'd heard of Carmilla 1872) by J.S. LeFanu in passing, but it wasn't until I was reading up on the Hammer horror film The Vampire Lovers (based loosely on the book) that I did the Googling necessary to spark real interest in Carmilla -at least enough to get me to intend to read the book.
As I am no longer working from home and once again enjoy a commute, I went ahead and got the audiobook of Carmilla for what will be one of my Halloween reads.
Formulated as a long letter or narrative told to a doctor asking about the story about a decade after the events described, we hear the first-person story of an 18-year-old girl and the slow revelation of the horrors that unfold when she meets another young woman who seems to be of noble breeding.
Believing that the beautiful young woman is the child of a noblewoman, necessarily left with she and her father in their remote estate after a carriage accident leaves Carmilla in shock and unable to travel further - our villain is allowed into the home and treated to their hospitality. Laura, the narrator, is spectacularly taken with Carmilla, leaping into a fast friendship despite the stranger's refusal to share details regarding her family and what mission her mother was on.
As Laura and Carmilla's relationship progresses, Laura begins to fall ill, and in the surrounding areas, people are beginning to die at the hands of a mysterious man or beast.
These days the book is mostly regarded as a precursor to Dracula as well as ground-zero for lesbian-erotic vampire stories, of which, if you dig around a bit, is it's own genre in literature and film. And, yeah, a Victorian-era story that not-so-subtlety gets it across that our two leads are more than just pals* is just one more nail in the coffin for the folks who tend to think the 1990's made up non-straight sexuality. The burgeoning friendship/ romance between the young women leaves some ellipses, but there's also a matter-of-factness about both how Laura narrates her attraction to Carmilla and how others describe her and her actions.
When I finally read Dracula, what struck me was that the novel itself has no elements of romance between the count and his victims - that does seem to be an artifact of dramatic interpretations of the novel. What Stoker's book does do is pair the slow moving horror of illness in the 19th Century with a source of the illness that is not just a mysterious germ, but actual pure malevolence - something this novel shares. Further, there's gut reaction to the evil of the central character - Laura describes the bizarre conflict of simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Carmilla, that she can't stay away but that she's aware something is wrong. And, both books spend time uncovering the source of the problem, both deny the reason and deflect suspicion, and both require a sort of scientist working in the shadows to come in and explain to the audience what is happening and what must be done.
I am not an English Lit aficionado, so I'd have to turn to someone else to tell me more about the literary traditions this book may reflect, or a deep-dive vampire folk-lorist to clear up what Le Fanu was reading to inspire the vampire character here. But the tone of the book reflects the "journal" or first-person style of both Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as a sort of polite dismay at the horrific events (I still think Shelley best writes about the personal horror here). And, honestly, it sure feels like Le Fanu is out ahead of many when it comes to Carmilla's supernatural abilities in description and depiction.
All in all, the book is a tight narrative - not wasting a lot of time or indicating that Le Fanu was paid by the word. While I won't say I was *frightened* by the book, it was the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner as the story moves at a brisk pace and things escalate quickly. If I have a regret, it's that the finale (gruesome as it may be) is written as something heard by the narrator rather than experienced firsthand, and it takes some steam out of what would be *amazing* on film.
Which, does remind me, as stated above, this was filmed as The Vampire Lovers by Hammer with the, uh, inspiring Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla, and I'll go ahead and recommend that movie once again, even if it doesn't share the same ending. I would be very interested in seeing a new adaptation of this movie some time, but it looks like the best one can do right now is a Canadian web-series that basically goes sparkly vampire on us.
From a production standpoint, I felt Tracey Childes nailed the job. Audiobook: recommended.
*I am sort of curious about this. I was recently also reading Team of Rivals and Kearns Goodwin spent some time getting into 19th Century social standards for friendship, especially between male friends. Apparently the trend at the time was that men often wrote lots of letters swearing their fealty to each other that sure look a lot like love letters today. Which, of course, does make you have to take a step back