This review concerns two different texts: Carmilla, a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, serialized in 1871-2, and the edited, introduced text of Carmilla, published in paperback by Lanternfish Press this month. The second text encloses the first, but the two remain distinct. Carmilla’s editor for its new release is Carmen Maria Machado, whose blazing reputation illuminates the 150-year-old text, and whose canny notes on Carmilla make the reading experience at once more playful and more mysterious than it would otherwise be. Both texts are intriguing and resonant, even if they never do entirely mesh into one.
As I’ve inserted this book into conversation recently, I’ve been surprised about who’s aware of it and who isn’t. Some people respond to the name as they’d respond to Dracula—yes, of course I know that book. Others, even enthusiastic fans of horror fiction and film, have no idea it exists. In reading the text, this variable audience awareness gelled for me at last: it’s a cult book, one that has an obvious place in the history of horror literature—but only once you’ve had the unlikely good fortune to read it.
Carmilla exists pre-Dracula, which makes it the unfortunate Hydrox cookie of vampire novels: first, not most famous. The reason it languishes, I’d guess, is the identity of its villain. Carmilla is female, not male, and that put her pursuit and seduction of a young female victim in a different light than Dracula’s. It upends the patriarchal norm on which Dracula rests: the powerful man dominating the passive woman, captivating her, draining her of life. The only acceptable female sexual desire derives from a spell, not from her own volition. In Carmilla, this is not so. Carmilla is dominant, seductive. She desires, and she ravishes. Shocking.
In execution, Carmilla is a predictable vampire novel with every possible Victorian Gothic cliché intact: a castle, a stormy night, pale faces, huge dresses, troubled sleep, bloody dreams, mysterious illness, virginal innocence, stalking malevolence. Even though these elements have grown hoary with a century’s use and overuse, Carmilla reads very well. Le Fanu’s prose is unlabored, and his narration, through the virginal Laura, flows at a well-modulated pace—if bent somewhat to the demands of serialization (nearly every chapter leaves off with a hook for next time). The villain of the title goes under the screamingly obvious aliases of Mircalla and Millarca, which adds to the sense of cliché. But Carmilla’s predictability is inoffensive, almost pleasant, like a Poirot novel. Le Fanu’s ideas were not yet cliché when he wrote the book, after all. Plus, this edition has detailed, fearlessly sensual illustrations by Robert Kraiza, which make the text infinitely less dry.
However, the central relationship is not exactly dry. The sexual nature of Carmilla’s attentions to Laura is unmistakable:
It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering…Her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Then she would throw herself back in her chair with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.
Sometimes, Victorian novels can seem naïve to modern eyes in their depiction of same-sex relationships. Ishmael’s bromance with Queequeg in Moby-Dick, for example, or Jane Eyre’s friendship with Helen. Heroines seize hands and kiss lips with their female friends. It’s just possible to imagine Laura as so virginal that she can’t comprehend a sexual relationship with another woman. But projecting that naïveté on Le Fanu (or Melville or Brontë, for that matter) would be a mistake.
In her notes, Carmen Maria Machado clarifies this point and many others. Some of her notes provide neutral information, such as telling the modern reader when Le Fanu paraphrases Shakespeare or where Styria is. Other notes are more poetic in nature, imagining miniature backstories for minor characters and pushing the reader to deepen her experience of the novel: “Imagine it, reader: a river of blood.” One passage describes a “dream” of Laura’s:
Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, and there the caress fixed itself. My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly; then came a sobbing that rose into a sense of strangulation and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious.
Machado’s note: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.”
And then there is her introduction. I read it after the text, so as not to spoil the story, and it was only in reading it that I determined the dual nature of this book. Machado spins a tale about the origins of Carmilla, certain historical context and figures peripheral to the novel’s publication, and the existence of a real Laura, a young woman named Veronika Hausle who corresponded with Le Fanu. I read along with interest, fully accepting that the age of spiritualism and corsets had brought together a horror writer and a delusional young woman, until a certain footnote stopped me cold: “Veronika Hausle’s great-granddaughter achieved her own measure of fame: she was acclaimed vocalist Madelena Deloni…whose famous Argentinian recital in 1936 inspired the seminal work of neurophysicist Geoffrey Sonnabend.”
If you have not visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and if you do not have a particularly good head for names, I won’t explain to you why my mouth dropped open, why I read and reread this sentence, why I reread the opening and then read the rest of the introduction in a state of amused awe—and why I felt the need to tell Machado, when I met her in March, that I see what she did there. I won’t disassemble the house she’s built. You’ll have to take my word for it: what she has accomplished in this introduction is a sneaky delight.
But it’s something altogether different than, for instance, a Norton Critical Edition of Winesburg, Ohio with edits and introduction by a contemporary expert. What Machado does with Carmilla is driven by her interests and intentions as a writer, not a curator. Hence, she adds not just information but color, imagination, a distinct and unshrinking intelligence. She shines a strong light on what’s in the book and refuses to let us dismiss it as a product of an earlier, less sexually sophisticated era. Crucially, her notes and introduction transform the novel from Victorian Gothic into postmodern Gothic, which makes this edition of Carmilla something the original text never was.
This is not a criticism, or a lament for purity, or any other reactionary nonsense. In truth, it would be a boon to literature if all cult Victorian novels could be edited and introduced creatively enough to catch the modern reader’s eye. But it does mean that Carmilla without Machado’s notes is a separate work of art from Carmilla with Machado’s notes. The new Carmilla prods the reader about the nature of fiction, the practice of killing off female Victorian narrators for no reason, the fragility of social mores, the metaphysics of vampirism, the breadth and depth of the Gothic…all matters that lie in the subtext of Carmilla, but which could be ignored, should the reader choose it.
Machado won’t allow that. Imagine it, reader, she insists. Don’t just perform textual intake: imagine it. Imagine Cleopatra, imagine the ghost of the serving-girl, imagine the orgasm. Imagine the dream of bloodied Carmilla.
by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; edited and with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado
Lanternfish Press; 160p.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from Kernpunkt Press in 2020. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.