Short Stories

‘Carmilla Halloween’ – By: Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh



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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.