While not especially popular in this generation of readers, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is an iconic Irish writer of Gothic and mystery stories from the 1800s. Of all his works, Carmilla often stands out as one of the most popular.
It’s almost impossible to discuss Carmilla without spoilers, but I’ll do my best not to ruin it for those who have not yet read the book, and may feel inspired to do so after reading this review.
Laura is the daughter of a wealthy Englishman, who has settled down to a quiet life in rural Austria. Laura’s small household consists of her father, herself, and a few workers who tend to their needs. With no other children her age for miles around, Laura lives a lovely but solitary life.
At six years old, Laura wakes to find that she has been left unattended in her room. She then notices a beautiful and mysterious visitor by the bed. Strangely comforted, she begins to fall asleep, but then wakes in pain. The mysterious visitor then disappears beneath the bed, but no intruder was ever found.
Twelve years later, a mother’s haste and a carriage accident puts Laura in the society of Carmilla. Laura is at first intrigued and horrified by Carmilla’s resemblance to the mysterious visitor in the room, so many years before.
Carmilla shares that she too dreamed of Laura on that fateful night, and woke when Laura began to scream, only to find herself back in her room.
In spite of this, the two become fast friends. Laura had recently lost the opportunity to befriend a beautiful young lady, who died under mysterious circumstances, and is eager to strike up a new companionship.
Even so, Carmilla’s eccentric habits, varying moods, and suspicious disappearances begin to unravel a mystery no one in the household was prepared to face.
There are several characters in Carmilla, but I’ll only focus on the main ones driving the plot.
The main protagonist, and the narrator of the story, teenager Laura lives in an Austrian castle with her father, and their attendees. She is innocent, forgiving, and perhaps a little naive.
Throughout the story, Laura opts to overlook many disturbing incidents, coincidences, and personality quirks in Carmilla, in her effort to maintain their relationship and see the best in her friend.
Laura’s Father is an Englishman of high birth. He is a kind, and well-learned gentleman who dotes on his daughter and always puts her best interest first. Throughout the book, he proves himself to be a man of logic, who always maintains a clear head, even in the face of crisis.
Carmilla is a young lady who suffers from a mysterious illness that makes her occasionally weak and frail. Throughout the book, she is protective of her family’s identity, though she admits to being a Karnstein, which happens to be relatives of Laura’s family.
Carmilla is passionate, intelligent, charismatic, and described as exceptionally beautiful. With these qualities, she is able to distract those around her from her illness, as well as her eccentric and sometimes unpredictable behaviour.
Early in the novel, the General loses his niece and ward, who was a proposed female companion for Laura. Distraught by his loss, he sends a letter to Laura’s father, sharing the bad news and vowing vengeance. He is a passionate man, and is willing to risk his life, and friendship with those closest to him, to execute justice and avenge his niece.
The Baron is the descendant of a man who is an expert on local ancestry and mythology, especially the claims that vampires once walked the land and wreaked havoc in the town. He is a character that only appears in the ending of the novel, but is instrumental in the events that unfold.
The most important theme in Carmilla is friendship, and the power it holds over those who fall under its spell, for better or worse.
In the story, Laura’s desire for a friend her age entwines her with the General and his daughter. When that opportunity is taken away, she is only too eager to fill the void with the beauty and intrigue of Carmilla.
The second most important theme in Carmilla is vampires. Without giving away too much about the novel, Carmilla is considered to be the book that pioneered vampire fiction.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published years later, was heavily influenced by Carmilla. Anne Rice, author of the famous Vampire Chronicles, also openly cited Carmilla as one of the influences behind her vampire series.
The third theme in the book is that of justice. It first enters the book when the General shares that he knows who is responsible for his niece’s death, and that he will not rest until he has tracked them down. The General returns towards the end of the story to follow through on that promise.
Like most European authors of his time, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu writes in a tone that contemporary readers may find formal and aristocratic. However, this is in-keeping with Laura’s high birth.
While formal, Carmilla is not peppered with flowery language. Carmilla is comparable in style to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as opposed to William Shakespeare; making it easy to follow.
As this is a novella, not a novel, the plot moves along relatively quickly. Something intriguing happens in every new chapter — often bringing new mysteries to light that keeps the reader flipping the pages to solve the mystery.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is quite possibly my favourite author of all time, but I have never met any reader who knew who he was. Hopefully, this review will expose more readers of Gothic, horror, vampire, mystery tales to one of the godfathers of these genres.
Prior to reading Carmilla, my favourite of his works was a short story entitled An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street. However, Carmilla is now my absolute favourite story of all time – by any author.
A solid 5 stars.
About the Reviewer
Alexis Chateau is an activist, writer, and explorer. Follow her stories of trial and triumph at www.alexischateau.com.
2 thoughts on “Book Review: Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu”