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If you were asked to name an Irish author who had written one of the first and most
influential of all vampire stories, you would almost certainly reply: “Bram Stoker”. If you were
told that this vampire story featured a remote castle in central Europe, fearful peasants, a
young girl dying as a result of nocturnal visits from a vampire, and the assistance of an old
man who has researched the ways of vampires, you might say: “Yes, that definitely sounds
like Dracula by Bram Stoker.”
But the description could just as well apply to Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The
most surprising thing is that Carmilla was first published in book form in 1872– more than
two decades before Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in 1897.
As well as similarities, of course, there are big differences between the two narratives. First
off, Carmilla is not a full-length novel, but rather a short story, or more precisely a novella. It
was one of five stories in Le Fanu’s collection In a Glass Darkly.
But the most notable difference between Dracula and Carmilla is that the villain of Le Fanu’s
story, the Carmilla of the title, is a female vampire. Indeed, it might fairly be said that she is
the most famous female vampire of all time. Which means that Ireland has given birth to
both the king and queen of vampire fiction!
Debate has raged for over a hundred years on the influence that Le Fanu’s story might have
had on Dracula. There is much disagreement, and nobody can even say for sure that Stoker
ever read Carmilla, though it seems reasonable to assume he did.
Just like Dracula, Carmilla has featured in far too many films, TV series, and books to list
here. Most famous, perhaps, is the Hammer studio’s “Karnstein Trilogy”, whose first
instalment The Vampire Lovers (1970) is a retelling of Le Fanu’s story.
But who was Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the creator of this enduring character?
Le Fanu is an author whose fame in the field of horror literature rests on much more than a
single tale. The great English writer of spooky stories, M.R. James, famously stated that Le
Fanu is “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”, a judgement with which few
fans of the horror genre would disagree.
Born in 1814, Le Fanu was the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. The famous playwright
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of School for Scandal, was his grand-uncle, and there was
a strong literary tradition in his childhood. His early childhood was spent in a house in the
Phoenix Park, and on several occasions Le Fanu would draw on the nearby village of
Chapelizod as a setting for his stories.
In 1826, Le Fanu’s family moved to Abington in County Limerick, where his father served as
the Church of Ireland rector. At this time, the (Protestant) Church of Ireland was still the
established church of the country, despite the fact that the vast majority of Irish people were
Catholics. Catholics were required to pay contributions (“tithes”) to the upkeep of the Church
of Ireland, even though it was not their own church.
Catholic discontent at this situation led to the outbreak of the Tithe War of the 1830s, a
campaign of both passive and (sometimes) violent resistance to the paying of tithes. It was
only one episode in a larger trend of the time: power passing (gradually and with much
resistance) from the Protestant minority of which Le Fanu was a member, to the Catholic
majority who were becoming increasingly educated and well-organized.
It has frequently been suggested that the instability of this time, and his experience as part of
an embattled minority, were a decisive influence on Le Fanu, and explain much of the
darkness and pessimism in his writings.
Le Fanu’s attitude towards the social changes of his time was complex. He had a very low
opinion of Daniel O’Connell, the champion of Catholic Emancipation. He once wrote: “Mr
O’Connell has been, throughout his whole political career, the sworn exterminator of
Protestantism– he is one whose political existence, from youth to decrepitude, has been one
of sordid hypocrisy, and of utter and savage selfishness”.
But although he was a defender of the status quo, and styled himself as a conservative, Le
Fanu was on rather friendly terms with the writers of The Nation newspaper, which promoted
Irish nationalism. Some of his historical novels show sympathy for the Jacobites, a faction
who favoured the Stuart claimants to the British throne. (Irish Catholics had generally
supported the Jacobite cause.) Le Fanu even wrote a patriotic ballad entitled “Shamus
O’Brien”, which describes the escape of a rebel of the 1798 Rising from the gallows.
Although the ballad may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, a nationalist acquaintance of Le
Fanu said: “You must have something of the real right feeling in you, or you could never
have written that.”
In 1844, Le Fanu married Susan Bennett, a marriage which produced four children. They
lived in Dublin. Susan died in 1858, while suffering from an attack of religious doubt that may
not have been helped by her husband’s neglect of church attendance. Some have
suggested that Le Fanu was something of an agnostic, but letters and diaries he wrote at the
time of his wife’s death show the consolation he took in his Christian faith.
In the later years of his life, Le Fanu would come to be known as the “Invisible Prince” of
Dublin, rarely seen in public.
His literary career began as a writer for the Dublin University Magazine while he was a
student at Trinity College, Dublin. He would eventually become the owner of the magazine,
along with several other newspapers. Le Fanu wrote prolifically in a number of different
genres, but it is as a horror writer that he is solely remembered.
Le Fanu first came to my own attention in my early teens, when my father told me that “An
Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” (first published in 1851) was the
most frightening ghost story ever written. Obviously, I made it my business to read it as soon
as possible. I can picture myself now, lying in bed with a volume of Le Fanu’s ghost-stories
propped up on my knees, the household around me deep in the silence of the early hours.
“Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” is a haunted house story, and the passage which
has remain fixed in my memory describes how, on several occasions, a ghastly painting
floated to the window of the narrator’s bedroom:
My attention invariably became, I know not why, fixed upon the windows opposite the foot of
my bed; and, uniformly with the same effect, a sense of dreadful anticipation always took
slow but sure possession of me… after an interval, which always seemed to me of the same
length, a picture suddenly flew up to the window, where it remained fixed, as if by an
electrical attraction, and my discipline of horror then commenced, to last perhaps for hours.
The picture thus mysteriously glued to the window-panes, was the portrait of an old man, in
a crimson flowered silk dressing-gown… His nose was hooked, like the beak of a vulture; his
eyes large, grey, and prominent, and lighted up with a more than mortal cruelty and
coldness. These features were surmounted by a crimson velvet cap, the hair that peeped
from under which was white with age, while the eyebrows retained their original blackness.
Well I remember every line, hue, and shadow of that stony countenance, and well I may! The
gaze of this hellish visage was fixed upon me, and mine returned it with the inexplicable
fascination of nightmare, for what appeared to me to be hours of agony.
I may not quite agree with my father that “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” is the
scariest ghost story ever, but that that particular scene certainly gave me a delicious chill all
those years ago!
The passage above, brief as it is, is typical of Le Fanu’s work. As with many Victorian
writers, there is a great attention to physical description, to the creation of atmosphere. The
palpable evil of the face in the portrait is also typical. Le Fanu’s villains and spirits tend to be
utterly depraved, the very depth of their wickedness providing much of the horror.
Carmilla appeared the year before Le Fanu died and it is probably fair to call it his greatest
work. Some of his other stories drag somewhat, but Carmilla– although it is almost thirty
thousand words long– holds the interest of the reader from beginning to end.
The story is set in Styria, a part of Austria, and is narrated by Laura, the young daughter of
an English widower who worked for the Austrian government. They live in a castle in a
remote forested area.
The supernatural element in Carmilla begins very early on, with an account of a vision that
Laura experienced as a six-year-old: “I saw a solemn, but very pretty face, looking at me
from the side of the bed.” The young lady who appears to Laura lies beside her in the bed,
and caresses her to sleep. Moments later, “I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles
ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly.” At this the visitor
disappears, but Laura refuses to believe her father and the servants when they tell her it was
just a dream.
Twelve years later, a carriage accident occurs just outside the castle. A young woman is
wounded, and her mother (who claims to be on an important journey that she cannot delay)
leaves the wounded girl to recuperate in the castle. Laura instantly recognizes the girl as the
same person who appeared to her in her childish vision, but she pushes aside her feelings of
At first, Laura is grateful for a companion to mitigate the loneliness of her life. She wonders
why Carmilla never eats (although she sometimes drinks), why she rises so late, why she is
so easily tired, and why she refuses to discuss her background– telling Laura only that she
comes from an ancient and noble family.
Carmilla’s attentions towards Laura are so intense and affectionate that many critics,
especially in modern times, consider this to be a lesbian-themed story. However, Laura’s
reaction is mixed: “I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable,
ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.” She is also distressed by
Carmilla’s contemptuous attitude towards the mysterious illness and deaths of peasant girls
in the locality: “I don’t trouble my head about peasants.”
The mystery of Carmilla deepens when she is found to bear an uncanny resemblance to a
portrait of Mircalla Karnstein, a long-dead Countess.
Soon, Laura herself begins to have troubled dreams and to sicken. “I had grown pale, my
eyes were dilated and dark underneath, and the langour which I had long felt began to
display itself in my countenance..”
To learn the climax of the story, you will have to read it for yourself. It’s well worth it.
I asked Paul Murray, author of From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker about the
influence of Carmilla on Dracula. He says: “While the temptation to claim that Bram Stoker’s
Dracula (1897) derives largely from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) in a
vampiric literary progression should be resisted, there are nevertheless some signs of
influence of the earlier over the later work, such as the development of vampiric symptoms in
the victims and the location of both in the Roman Catholic Habsburg-ruled Austro-Hungarian
Empire by two Church of Ireland writers, creating a similar religious/supernatural dynamic at
the heart of the two stories.”
Whatever the relation of Dracula and Carmilla, we can be sure that they will both continue to
haunt the world’s imagination for a long, long time to come.