Thanks to a fortuitous combination of copyright law, family networking, and Bela Lugosi’s suave-as-heck acting chops, the character of Dracula–once a minor character who spent a lot of dusty time on a shelf–has become the most iconic vampire in history. And most of the quintessential vampire characteristics–seduction, glamour, animal transformation (because why not, right?)–we associate with Dracula himself, and Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name.
But just like that infamous quote about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, another vampire has been doing everything Dracula did, backwards and in high heels and for longer than Dracula’s even been around. (For more of Nerdist’s Vampire Week, click here!)
In 1872, a full 25 years before Dracula hit shelves, J. Sheridan Le Fanu published Carmilla, a dark, psychologically horrific, and startlingly subversive novella that not only came before Dracula, but influenced it. Narrated by its protagonist, Carmilla is what we now consider to be a picture of the vampire plot: Laura, a young woman who lives alone with her wealthy father, befriends Carmilla, a mysterious, beautiful stranger.
They begin an intense, shockingly (for 1872) sexually charged friendship, with Laura finding herself both enthralled and disturbed by Carmilla and her own feelings towards Carmilla’s almost obsessive nature–until, after a series of unexplained deaths of nearby young women and the arrival of a “priestly doctor” (hello, Van Helsing trope, how are you today?) who eventually reveals that Carmilla is in fact Millarca, an ancient vampire who has been preying on young women for decades. Sound familiar?
Elements of Carmilla are all over Dracula, from aesthetics (particularly of female vampires, namely the “rosy cheeks, big eyes, full lips, and almost irresistible sensuality“), to plot points and character tropes (seductive vampire? Check. Confused victims? Check. Knowledgeable vampire hunter? Check.), to narrative framing devices (both written as first person accounts from the victims).
D.H. Friston, 1872
While many of today’s fans associate Carmilla with the incredibly queer web series and its equally delightful movie, the genre’s first lesbian vampire has been seducing impressionable girls for nearly 150 years. And looking great doing it. So why, if Carmilla did everything first (and, arguably, better), don’t we consider her the founding queen of the vampire genre rather than its niche, queer cousin?
Vampire literature, prior to the days when it was less about fighting for your life and more about dramatically attempting to survive high school with your paranormal boyfriend, was effective as a genre because it capitalized on some of the purest human fears. Of the forbidden, of something “worse than death,” and, perhaps most damning, of the other. “Vampires are our fictional cipher for the outsider, and represent the embodiment of our cultural fears of the unknown,” writer Annabelle Williams explains in her essay comparing the two iconic vampires. But while both texts take the other-as-danger approach, Stoker’s novel comes at it from what would have been, and in many ways still is, a far less threatening angle.
In addition to being a very scary vampire, Dracula is also a foreigner to British soil. Stoker, an Irish writer, didn’t fail to drape him with subtext about colonialism and Celtic gothic tropes. His predisposition is making more vampires, but also with land deals and empire. But that was nothing compared to the threat that Carmilla, as essentially an erotic thriller, presented to a Victorian reader.
As Williams writes,
“Sure, [Dracula] turns Lucy Westenra into a vampire, but the text itself is more concerned with his real estate holdings and the dynamics of the vampire hunters…Carmilla, however, embodied the otherness of feminine desire and queerness. The taboo of vampirism superseded the taboo of lesbianism. Because she existed outside the social contract, she was allowed to exist as her sultry self. But the threat is still there: this time, though, Carmilla as a character and as a symbol poses a threat to the patriarchy.”
Carmen Maria Machado, who edited the 2019 reprint of Carmilla, took it a step further. In a hilarious and mind-bending interview discussing her introduction to the new edition, she took a break from elaborate meta-jokes about LeFanu’s work and her own, Machado says,
“The connection between narratives of vampires and narratives of women—especially queer women—are almost laughably obvious. Even without Carmilla, they would be linked. The hunger for blood, the presence of monthly blood, the influence and effects of the moon, the moon as a feminine celestial body, the moon as a source of madness, the mad woman, the mad lesbian—it goes on and on…It is somewhat surprising to me that we have ever imagined male vampires at all.”
The overt female sexuality and lesbian undercurrents of Carmilla may have banished it to the back bookshelves of the genre, but that suppression may actually have saved it. Dracula, despite its fame and prominence, really doesn’t hold up to a modern reader. In her book Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach writes that Dracula, for the most part, now functions less as a novel and more as a reference text: “There are many Draculas, and still more vampires who refuse to be Dracula or to play him.” Williams acknowledges this as well, noting that “Stoker’s novel popularized tropes of the vampire myth ranging from garlic to coffins, and the sheer endurance of Dracula as a character put all subsequent Western vampire fictions in conversation with the Count.”
But while Dracula has the popularity, Carmilla actually still functions as a novel–and an enjoyable one. Even now, the text holds up as pure psychological horror. From the way Laura, the narrator and Carmilla’s victim, writes about the way Carmilla makes her feel,
The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons… It will never desist until it has satiated its passion and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of a connoisseur, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship.” (136) (Girl, are you okay??)
to the way vampirism itself is written to originate,
“How does [vampirism] begin, and how does it multiply itself? I will tell you. A person, more or less wicked, puts an end to himself. A suicide, under certain circumstances, becomes a vampire.” (138) (Yikes!)
Carmilla still works–not just as a story, but as one that is just as seductive as it was when it was originally published. Williams writes, “The animating force behind our interest in vampires is the connection between desire and death, sex and sin.” We think of Dracula as a relic. Carmilla is spared that historical scrutiny in part because it was never as famous as its Transylvanian successor, but also because her story continues to resonate today. The tale of obsession, queer desire, and Gothic intrigue feels as enthralling in 2020 as it did in 1872.
Between her much stronger narrative and her incredible potential appeal to lovers of proper sexy vampires, Carmilla is way overdue for a renaissance and the mainstream renown she deserves. While we wait for studios to catch up with what queer fans of the vampire genre already know, love, and write great fanfiction about, the book itself is available any time.
Waiting, just like Carmilla herself, to seduce you.