Friday, October 11, 2013

seasonal reading: Carmilla
by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

source: gift
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

For a hundred and forty years Carmilla has given readers' bodies and souls a shake, because the vampire is beautiful, but repulsive, to be resisted at all costs, because the narrative alternates so imaginatively between twittering girlies and an urgent need to reach for sharpened wooden stakes. (Richler, xxxi)
One of my late-arriving birthday presents was a copy of the Pomegranate Vintage Vampire edition of Carmilla, a vampire story first published in 1872. I decided to read it right away because it seemed like an appropriate selection for the Halloween season.

This particular edition of Carmilla includes illustrations by Taeden Hall1 (though the cover was illustrated by Gillian Holmes) and a preface by Daniel Richler. Richler's 23-page introduction to the story managed to be both academic and chatty. It places Carmilla in context (of its time, in the development of vampire literature, etc.) and discusses how Carmilla has been interpreted and adapted over time.

Hall's illustrations are sweet and very much in keeping with the novella's "twittering girlies" (above) and "girl school lesbianism" (publisher) while still being atmospheric. Plate 5, inspired by the line "The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed" (117), packs a punch,2 while the others are more subtle by degrees. I do wish though that the publisher had used a different process to print the plates. The dots created by pixelation bring to mind comics, (over)emphasizing the cartoony quality of the illustrations.

As to the story itself I have to admit that I did not find it to be nearly as creepy as I'd hoped I would.3 That's not a problem with the story per se, but rather with the fact that many modern readers (including myself) came of age reading authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice. It seems like that inoculation has made us immune to the true spookiness of gothic and proto-horror stories.

At 124 pages, however, the novella seems decidedly short.  The narrative includes so much build up before the realization that the vampire-character is a vampire that the vanquishment and conclusion felt rushed.  On a more positive note, Le Fanu's prose is very easy to read with little in the way of antiquated language to irritate (some) modern readers.  Additionally, his interpretation of the whys and wherefores of vampirism are surprisingly uncomplicated.
  1. Hall's alternative clothing line, Gloomth, has a 3-piece collection inspired by the novella.
  2. How could it not?
  3. I have the same problem with Lovecraft, much to my chagrin. 

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