Let's Read: Carmilla!

Some thoughts on the Prologue through Chapter Four.

This is Part One of Let’s Read: Carmilla. See this post for more information & a reading schedule. Conversation thread will go live today at noon EST.

Good morning, friends! I hope your weekend is treating you well.

Ready for some Lady Vampire Business?

Let’s jump right in.

In which a man is pretentious.

• So, this guy—this is an assumption, but based on context and voice, I think it’s a fair one—is one of those guys who is desperate to show everyone how smart he is? Which is hilarious, as he gently mocks Doctor Hesselius, the guy that HE’S writing about, for doing the same thing.

• Okay, I want to make sure I have the framing right: This guy is publishing the collected works of a Doctor Hesselius, who wrote an essay about this case. So this prologue is an introduction to the essay, but also to the narrative of the as-yet-unnamed lady who actually wrote the story we’re about to read.

• Also, she’s dead.

CHAPTER I. An Early Fright
In which Our Narrator tells us about a Formative Childhood Experience.

• First, she—no name yet—describes the estate where she lives with her father (her mother is dead), the inhabitants of the estate (not counting the servants, because they don’t count), and the area of Austria that they’re in… WHICH INCLUDES A GHOST TOWN:

I have said “the nearest inhabited village,” because there is, only three miles westward, that is to say in the direction of General Spielsdorf’s schloss, a ruined village, with its quaint little church, now roofless, in the aisle of which are the moldering tombs of the proud family of Karnstein, now extinct, who once owned the equally desolate chateau which, in the thick of the forest, overlooks the silent ruins of the town.

Respecting the cause of the desertion of this striking and melancholy spot, there is a legend which I shall relate to you another time.

• She was nineteen during the events of her story; she’s 27 now.

• And then we get to the meat of it. She tells a story about her earliest childhood memory, which is wonderful and terrifying:

I can’t have been more than six years old, when one night I awoke, and looking round the room from my bed, failed to see the nursery maid. Neither was my nurse there; and I thought myself alone. I was not frightened, for I was one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly, or the flicker of an expiring candle makes the shadow of a bedpost dance upon the wall, nearer to our faces. I was vexed and insulted at finding myself, as I conceived, neglected, and I began to whimper, preparatory to a hearty bout of roaring; when to my surprise, I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly. The lady started back, with her eyes fixed on me, and then slipped down upon the floor, and, as I thought, hid herself under the bed.

I loved this so much, and weirdly, it made me appreciate the obnoxiousness of the prologue, because the contrast between the two voices and writing styles is so wild. Fantastic.

• Everyone comes running, and the servants believe her because there’s a warm spot on the bed where the Mysterious Lady had been, though there are no puncture marks on her body. This is where I want an account from the servants, because it seems like they know what’s up—her father brings in a doctor, and the housekeeper and nurse bring in a priest. Mostly her father seems to laugh it off, but I’m not sure if he’s just trying to reassure her? Because from that night forward, until she’s fourteen, a servant sits up with her as she sleeps, and it seems that her father would have had to order that. Unless the housekeeper set it up.

…this might be an example of my tendency to really overthink things; why do I always get so hung up on these details??

In which Carmilla makes her entrance via runaway carriage.

• Our narrator’s father informs her that their expected visitors—a party that included a girl about her age, which she’d been VERY much looking forward to—will not be coming. And then he tells her why:

“Not till autumn. Not for two months, I dare say,” he answered. “And I am very glad now, dear, that you never knew Mademoiselle Rheinfeldt.”

“And why?” I asked, both mortified and curious.

“Because the poor young lady is dead,” he replied.

Which was so blunt that it made me laugh out loud.

• The letter from the General—her father’s friend, and the father of the dead girl—includes two pieces of information:

  1. The fiend who betrayed our infatuated hospitality has done it all. I thought I was receiving into my house innocence, gaiety, a charming companion for my lost Bertha.

  2. I devote my remaining days to tracking and extinguishing a monster.

Which, like, I don’t know. If I got a letter like that and then an unknown beautiful young woman showed up on my doorstep wanting to move in, I might be… A TINY BIT CONCERNED?? POSSIBLY I MIGHT THINK TWICE ABOUT IT? But I’m getting ahead of the story.

• If it had more Dramatic Capitalization, this would read like a sentence written by a tweenage Anne Shirley:

The sun was setting with all its melancholy splendor behind the sylvan horizon, and the stream that flows beside our home, and passes under the steep old bridge I have mentioned, wound through many a group of noble trees, almost at our feet, reflecting in its current the fading crimson of the sky.

• So, to set the scene, Our Narrator is walking with her father, and her two governesses (one regular, one finishing), enjoying the moonlight and quoting Shakespeare and so on:

“I forget the rest. But I feel as if some great misfortune were hanging over us. I suppose the poor General’s afflicted letter has had something to do with it.”

At this moment the unwonted sound of carriage wheels and many hoofs upon the road, arrested our attention.

This, my friends, is what they call foreshadowing.

• In short: Runaway carriage! Older lady very much in charge! Young beautiful lady in a faint! Older lady insists on leaving younger lady because… she’s in a hurry?? She’ll come back for her IN THREE MONTHS??

Our Narrator’s father is like, “Sure, this is actually a great coincidence, my daughter was really bummed out about her playdate being cancelled due to her friend dying under mysterious circumstances that involved some random beautiful girl, so it’ll be really nice for her to have a random beautiful girl as company!!!” Annnnd then the older lady talks to Our Narrator’s father privately, for, like, two to three minutes max, and then pretty much jumps into her carriage again and peels out??

• Our Narrator clocks some Suspicious Behavior—beyond the ENTIRE SITUATION, I mean—but Dad doesn’t notice:

The lady threw on her daughter a glance which I fancied was not quite so affectionate as one might have anticipated from the beginning of the scene; then she beckoned slightly to my father, and withdrew two or three steps with him out of hearing; and talked to him with a fixed and stern countenance, not at all like that with which she had hitherto spoken.

I was filled with wonder that my father did not seem to perceive the change, and also unspeakably curious to learn what it could be that she was speaking, almost in his ear, with so much earnestness and rapidity.

A movie interlude: Death Smiles on a Murderer (Joe D’Amato, 1973)

Last month, we watched a movie that opened with that exact carriage scene!

In Death Smiles on a Murderer, bombshell—and Sheryl Lee lookalike?—Ewa Aulin insinuates herself into some rich household and then proceeds to have affairs with everyone and also do some murders! The breakfast scene pictured above was actually a SEXY breakfast scene, in which Ewa Aulin keeps giving everyone at the table THE EYE.

Every scene in the movie was hilariously endless, and it was mostly incomprehensible, but it was basically a mash-up of, like, at least four different Gothics, so I found it hugely enjoyable.

Trigger warning for eyeball stuff. And sexual assault by a sibling.

CHAPTER III. We Compare Notes
In which we get some actual facetime with the Mysterious Beautiful Young Lady.

• Dad sends for a doctor, and while they all wait for him to arrive, they install the Mysterious Beautiful Young Lady in a bedroom, where she promptly falls asleep. Then our four residents of the household, as the chapter heading promises, compare notes. In addition to the expected twittering on about their new housemate’s beauty and so on, we get this:

  1. The finishing governess tells the others that there was a THIRD woman in the carriage, a Black woman wearing a turban, and the description is just as racist and gross as you’d expect from a story by a white guy writing in 1872, so I’ll spare you the quote.

  2. They discuss the lady’s servants, and feel that they all look untrustworthy and wicked, but give them credit for fixing the carriage so quickly.

• The governesses retire, and then Dad relays the information that the older lady gave him so secretly: Basically, that her daughter is delicate, but doesn’t have seizures or hallucinations. Which, as Our Narrator points out, feels like somewhat unnecessary information, but okay. And then her father says:

“She then said, ‘I am making a long journey of vital importance—she emphasized the word—rapid and secret; I shall return for my child in three months; in the meantime, she will be silent as to who we are, whence we come, and whither we are traveling.’ That is all she said. She spoke very pure French. When she said the word ‘secret,’ she paused for a few seconds, looking sternly, her eyes fixed on mine. I fancy she makes a great point of that. You saw how quickly she was gone. I hope I have not done a very foolish thing, in taking charge of the young lady.”

Which, again, nothing remotely suspicious here, no siree Bob. I love that NOW he is starting to second-guess himself, after there’s not really any way out of the situation.

• After the doctor has checked the Mysterious Young Lady out, Our Narrator is finally able to visit with her, and gets A BIT OF A SHOCK:

What was it that, as I reached the bedside and had just begun my little greeting, struck me dumb in a moment, and made me recoil a step or two from before her? I will tell you.

I saw the very face which had visited me in my childhood at night, which remained so fixed in my memory, and on which I had for so many years so often ruminated with horror, when no one suspected of what I was thinking.

It was pretty, even beautiful; and when I first beheld it, wore the same melancholy expression.

But this almost instantly lighted into a strange fixed smile of recognition.

There was a silence of fully a minute, and then at length she spoke; I could not.

“How wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Twelve years ago, I saw your face in a dream, and it has haunted me ever since.”

So! I LOOOOOVE that there is no dancing around this?? That she recognizes the MBYL, and the MBYL clocks the recognition, and then it’s the MBYL who voices it… which feels to me like an action calculated to nip any suspicion/fear in the bud? I’m guessing that vampires have to think a few moves ahead in these situations.

• They share their memories of one another—the crucial difference being that the MBYL claims that in her “dream,” Our Narrator was not a child, but was the age she is now. My guess is that the MBYL was there IN PERSON and that she’s lying through her pointy teeth:

“I don’t know which should be most afraid of the other,” she said, again smiling—“If you were less pretty I think I should be very much afraid of you, but being as you are, and you and I both so young, I feel only that I have made your acquaintance twelve years ago, and have already a right to your intimacy; at all events it does seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be friends. I wonder whether you feel as strangely drawn towards me as I do to you; I have never had a friend—shall I find one now?” She sighed, and her fine dark eyes gazed passionately on me.

Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, “drawn towards her,” but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.

Our Narrator keeps going back to the attraction-repulsion push-pull, and the MBYL does an outstandingly manipulative job of setting her at ease by claiming to feel it, too:

She confessed that she had experienced a similar shock on seeing me, and precisely the same faint antipathy that had mingled with my admiration of her. We now laughed together over our momentary horrors.

Also! She’s up and about during daylight hours, but locks herself in her bedroom at night.

CHAPTER IV. Her Habits—A Saunter
In which we learn that female peasants are dying left and right.

• The MBYL is languid, languid, and languid some more. She’s also slender, graceful, beautiful (but we already knew that), and had great hair.

• Even though she was told in the last chapter that her guest wasn’t going to be very forthcoming about her background, Our Narrator is rather annoyed and takes it somewhat personally. (In her defense, she did describe herself as spoiled, so that tracks.) Here’s what she does get:

What she did tell me amounted, in my unconscionable estimation—to nothing.

It was all summed up in three very vague disclosures:

First—Her name was Carmilla.

Second—Her family was very ancient and noble.

Third—Her home lay in the direction of the west.

She would not tell me the name of her family, nor their armorial bearings, nor the name of their estate, nor even that of the country they lived in.

• I mean, when people tell you who they are, believe them?:

“Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.”

• The push-pull is very much about the vampire thing, I think, and doesn’t feel at all like it’s about the mutual sexual attraction. In other words, none of her descriptions of her mixed feelings read like Our Narrator is uncomfortable with the sexual component of the attraction:

In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.

• That said, she does briefly consider the idea that Carmilla is pulling a move out of a Georgette Heyer novel, and could be a boy in disguise?:

Was she, notwithstanding her mother’s volunteered denial, subject to brief visitations of insanity; or was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read in old storybooks of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade, with the assistance of a clever old adventuress. But there were many things against this hypothesis, highly interesting as it was to my vanity.

“…highly interesting as it was to my vanity” made me laugh out loud.

• I would like to know who she’s writing to?

In some respects her habits were odd. Perhaps not so singular in the opinion of a town lady like you, as they appeared to us rustic people.

• They’re out walking, and a peasant funeral passes by. Our Narrator joins in the singing of a hymn, which Carmilla does NOT like AT ALL, complaining that the sound is discordant and piercing. Also, she thinks funerals are dumb:

“Besides, how can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me, and I hate funerals. What a fuss! Why you must die—everyone must die; and all are happier when they do. Come home.”

• But who, you ask, was the funeral for? WELL. Something tells me that it might be relevant:

“She? I don’t trouble my head about peasants. I don’t know who she is,” answered Carmilla, with a flash from her fine eyes.

“She is the poor girl who fancied she saw a ghost a fortnight ago, and has been dying ever since, till yesterday, when she expired.”

“Tell me nothing about ghosts. I shan’t sleep tonight if you do.”

“I hope there is no plague or fever coming; all this looks very like it,” I continued. “The swineherd’s young wife died only a week ago, and she thought something seized her by the throat as she lay in her bed, and nearly strangled her. Papa says such horrible fancies do accompany some forms of fever. She was quite well the day before. She sank afterwards, and died before a week.”

Peasant ladies dying left and right around town!

ALSO. This moment made me realize that this kind of vampire is basically a metaphor for the aristocracy? But instead of feeding on the peasants financially, they’re feeding off of them LITERALLY? I can’t believe it’s taken me over four decades to realize this, I feel like a bit of an ass.

• A peddler swings by—he’s described as “a hunchback” and coded Jewish—and sells them both amulets to protect against the “oupire” that he claims is ravaging the area. As Carmilla buys one of his charms, I don’t know if it’ll turn out to be particularly useful, but it does seem that he clocks Carmilla for what she is, and makes it known:

“Your noble friend, the young lady at your right, has the sharpest tooth,—long, thin, pointed, like an awl, like a needle; ha, ha! With my sharp and long sight, as I look up, I have seen it distinctly; now if it happens to hurt the young lady, and I think it must, here am I, here are my file, my punch, my nippers; I will make it round and blunt, if her ladyship pleases; no longer the tooth of a fish, but of a beautiful young lady as she is. Hey? Is the young lady displeased? Have I been too bold? Have I offended her?”

Also, his dog hates her.

Digression: Have you seen The Handmaiden? It’s a GORGEOUS 2016 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, directed by Park Chan-wook, and includes an exceedingly hot/dangerous tooth-filing scene.

• ANOTHER peasant death, and there is concern in the community about a monster in their midst, but Dad chalks it up to peasants being silly and superstitious, because classism. He says it’s natural causes—he’s not a doctor, but probably does a lot of research on YouTube—and then has this exchange with Carmilla:

“We are in God’s hands: nothing can happen without his permission, and all will end well for those who love him. He is our faithful creator; He has made us all, and will take care of us.”

“Creator! Nature!” said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. “And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature—don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.”

Which, like: Fair enough, Carmilla. If God made everything and everyone, then that includes you.

• Carmilla tells Our Narrator that all of this monster talk has her scared, and they have this exchange:

“You are afraid to die?”

“Yes, every one is.”

“But to die as lovers may—to die together, so that they may live together.

And I took her at her word about her fear of death? It felt more genuine than a lot of what she’s said previously, maybe because it directly followed a bit where she talked about a time in her life when she was very ill, much like whatever it is that’s plaguing the peasants.

• The last scene in the chapter involves a conversation between the local doctor and her father—we don’t witness it, but based on context, I got the impression that the doctor thinks that there is a vampire (or SOMETHING) in the area, and Dad laughs it off.

PHEW!! I guess I had a lot of thoughts?

I’ll post a conversation thread at noon my time, hope to chat with you then!

Enjoy your morning,