Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu is the one of the first great works of vampire fiction, published in 1872, about a quarter century before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like the undead titular character, Carmilla is a timeless work, brimming with vivacity and an irresistible yet dangerous allure.
The teenaged narrator, Laura, lives with her father in an old Austrian castle. As a six-year-old girl, Laura dreams of a young woman looking over her at night, a singular beauty whom she cannot erase from her mind. Upon waking from her dream, she discovers a mysterious pain in her chest.
Many years later, a carriage breaks down in front of their castle, and the family is left to take care of a beautiful girl, Carmilla, who appears to be the same age as Laura. Laura and Carmilla immediately recognize each other from their childhood dreams, and a close-knit friendship blossoms. This friendship soon crosses over to romantic courtship as Carmilla’s desires grow more carnal.
Meanwhile, girls across the village are succumbing to a mysterious illness, unexplainable by any natural means. The locals believe that the girls are becoming sick through supernatural means and are determined to put an end to this evil.
Carmilla is an early masterpiece of Gothic fiction, setting the standard for vampire fiction for 150 years after its publication, and its influence has only grown in recent years. Personally, I enjoyed Carmilla a lot more than Dracula, which seems rather stodgy by comparison. Sheridan Le Fanu should also be commended for his natural and non-judgmental depiction of sapphic love, which is surprising for something published in the nineteenth century.
Overall, Carmilla is a must-read for lovers of Gothic fiction and vampire horror. Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic novella is somehow just as vibrant today as when it was published in 1872.