I remember my father coming up and standing at the bedside, and talking cheerfully, and asking the nurse a number of questions, and laughing very heartily at one of the answers; and patting me on the shoulder, and kissing me, and telling me not to be frightened, that it was nothing but a dream and could not hurt me.
But I was not comforted, for I knew the visit of the strange woman was not a dream; and I was awfully frightened. (Chapter I)
Does a story about vampires have to be interpreted to be a story of sex? And if vampires are a symbol for sex, if the story is a horror story with vampires as the monster, does that mean that the story is making sex the boogie-man?
Laura is the daughter of a noble-man living in Austria in the middle of nowhere. The story, after hearing about Laura’s childhood, starts with her hearing the news that a girl who was supposed to come and visit is dead, right before she and her father meets Carmilla and her mother. Carmilla is hurt and weak, and seeing that her mother needs to get to somewhere (she never says where), Carmilla is put in the care of Laura’s father. Living in the middle of nowhere you can ask if Laura gravitates toward Carmilla is due to desperation of someone to be friends with, or if she really is captivated with Carmilla’s personality. That Carmilla is attracted to Laura is clear, and the lesbian subtext is so loud Le Fanu apparently was asked questions about this (Carmilla was written in 1871, homosexuality was very much a taboo at the time).
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.” Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling. (Chapter IV)
Le Fanu answered that since they aren’t both humans, they can’t be lesbians. While I’m not going to debate if vampires can be lesbians or not, this answer doesn’t change that Carmilla is seen as quite important in Queer literature.
While the story progresses, there is a subplot about an illness that is killing some of the women in neighbouring villages. In the 19th century consumption (tuberculoses) was very often blamed on vampires. They bit you, drained you of your energy and you died. The interesting thing here is that in the story only women are dying from this illness. Something that again creates a strong connotation to lesbianism. That the female vampire chooses to drink only from other women. If it hadn’t been for the detail of only the women being the victims, you could make the case that this story was about someone who was infected with tuberculoses.
Without knowing it, I was now in a pretty advanced stage of the strangest illness under which mortal ever suffered. There was an unaccountable fascination in its earlier symptoms that more than reconciled me to the incapacitating effect of that stage of the malady. This fascination increased for a time, until it reached a certain point, when gradually a sense of the horrible mingled itself with it, deepening, as you shall hear, until it discoloured and perverted the whole state of my life. (Chapter VII)
Even the way the characters talk gives you an impression of an illness killing the infected victim.
“Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.” (Chapter V)
In the adaptation done by Vervegirl on youtube
While well placed within a queer reading of the book, and more drawing from it as an inspiration than a strict modern re-telling, it does point to the themes of illness as well. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is interesting that they expanded the story the way they did.
But, as stated earlier, a reading of vampirism as symbolism for an illness is seeing it the wrong way around. In Carmilla the symptoms and victims are too controlled to be read as a random illness. The vampire is seeking these people out, due to a reason not really disclosed in the story. They are also sought out in two different ways, one is more controlled and takes longer time while the other, it seems, is of a much shorter duration. An example of the first is in the character of the vampire hunter that we meet at the end of the book and how he meets the vampire the first time around. They were sought out and a friendship was formed, in contrast to the women who die throughout the story whom don’t get a similar friendship. For vampires, at least at she is depicted in this story, you have two kind of victims; you have food and you have more than just food.
You do not know how dear you are to me, or you could not think any confidence too great to look for. But I am under vows, no nun half so awfully, and I dare not tell my story yet, even to you. The time is very near when you shall know everything. You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me. and hating me through death and after. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature. (Chapter VI)
Now it has to be stated that while you have this separation, and the claims of one of the characters that she loves her; it is also a love that will kill her. It just happens to kill her more slowly than the “just-food” victims.
Vampires throughout time, have been a way to talk about sexuality that differs from the norm. The way the author says sexuality should be. Dracula is a prime example, where Stoker condemns women for being sexual being, as well as condemning foreigners for being more sexual open than the British norm (among other things, Dracula is in a polygamous relationship with his three wives.) In the quote the vampire is saying “I am under vowes, no nun half so awfully”. Nuns have a vow of being celibate, and she is saying that her “vow” of being a vampire is more awful than being a celibate nun. Putting vampirism in contrast to being celibate, in addition to the points of only women being targeted and the multiple confession of desire and love, does make it very logical to connect being a vampire to being a lesbian. It is also clear that the writer is not painting being a lesbian in a good light, seeing that it can be read as an illness or at least something deadly.
But, this is quite interesting as lesbianism wasn’t really a thing in the 1870s, when the book was written. In the story the vampire does declare her love, and to what a modern reader would assume is show sexual desire, but the human doesn’t see it that way. She isn’t shocked or scared, and it’s other aspect of the relationship that is slowly draining her of energy and slowly killing her. It is a myth that Queen Victoria in 1885 removed women from the law declaring homosexuality illegal in the UK, but the truth is women were never considered to do that by any of the lawmakers to begin with. There were no women in the law for Queen Victoria to remove. Women were officially, at the time, not seen as having any sexual desires at all. While at the same time known about in such a manner that Le Fanu had to deny that it was about lesbians. In this sense lesbians both didn’t exist and were condemned at the same time.
This is a horror story, and lesbianism is the boogie-man, but it’s too simple to say that Le Fanu condemns lesbianism. The main character is scared and ashamed of her actions with the vampire. (As a woman could be feeling ashamed for having sexual feelings toward another woman in a context where that is not allowed). You also have a vampire hunter, which is painted as the big savour in the story and whom condemns the vampires for their actions (since he is the good guy, what he condemns has to be bad). At the same time you are meant, in my opinion, to sympathise a bit with the vampire. She is very much painted as someone who doesn’t have control over the situation or herself. Especially the end makes this very clearly.
Its [the vampire] horrible lust for living blood supplies the vigor of its waking existence. The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. (Chapter XVI)
In addition to the passion that drives the vampires and that it can’t control, vampirism is also started with someone committing suicide i.e. deliberately leaving society. Living out sexual practises that were condemned and marginalised could be seen as committing social suicide. That means that if you first start to live out these practises, you will be driven by a passion you can’t control and that should be feared. But the story, while condemning this, does also pity the vampire. People who knew her in life want to save her, and feel dejected because they can’t. So while the book condemns her actions, it’s more out of pity than here is an evil being. She was simply “re”-born that way.