Bram Stoker’s Dracula has inspired and set the bar for vampire fiction. The Count or thinly veiled versions of him have appeared in countless books, stories, films and plays for over one hundred and twenty-five years.
We even have breakfast cereal and a character on Sesame Street based on Stoker’s vampire. This year alone, Hollywood has given us Renfield with Nicholas Cage and The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which is based on one chapter from Dracula.
It has certainly been one of my all time favorite books and I can’t even count (pun intended) how many movies I’ve watched and rewatched inspired by the book. How can you not love Bela Lugosi when he says, “To die, to be truly dead, that must be glorious.” And then he tells us,”There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Today, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is recognized as one of the greatest vampire fiction novels of all time, but in 1897, it really didn’t create much of a stir. Horror fiction was already established as a literary genre in the Victorian era and vampires were a common topic.
One of the writers that was central to the development of that genre was also an Irishman. Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was born on August 28, 1814 on Dominik Street in Dublin. Writing was in the blood of the family, his grandmother and a great uncle were playwrights and his mother was a writer. She had written a biography of Dr. Charles Orpen, who had founded the Claremont Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Dublin in 1816.
Joseph’s father was a clergyman for the Church of Ireland and the family moved accordingly when he was appointed to new rectorships. Joseph used his father’s library to further his education and by the time he was fifteen he was writing poetry.
By the time he started at Trinity College Dublin to study law, he was going by Sheridan Le Fanu. He was a brilliant student and was called to the bar in 1839, but never practiced. Instead he put all of his focus into journalism. He had begun contributing stories the year before to Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story, The Ghost and the Bone Setter.
Sheridan worked in many genres in his lifetime, but is best known for his horror tales. One of the best known works is the story of Carmilla, written in 1872, twenty-six years prior to the publication of Stoker’s Dracula.
Carmilla is from an old, aristocratic family, she is young and beautiful and also just happens to be a vampire. She preys on vulnerable young women to whom she is sexually attracted. The story starts with Carmilla being welcomed into the family home of Laura, after a staged carriage accident. An uncomfortable romance of a sort develops between the two, while a mysterious illness descends upon some of the townspeople, resulting in their death.
When Laura becomes afflicted, her father begins to regret his decision to allow Carmilla into their home. Before he can vocalize his fears, an old family friend, General Spielsdorf, shows up and relates his story of a bizzare relationship between his late niece and a beautiful young woman named Millarca.
Carmilla flees before she can be confronted and Laura and her family see the parallels in their own experiences and the General’s niece. General Spielsdorf has made it his life’s mission to track down and destroy the woman he knows to be a vampire. Leading our heroes to pursue and catch up to Carmilla.
Written in the Victorian era, some scholars speculate that Carmilla’s open vampiric lesbianism was a statement portraying female sexuality as a dangerous and evil thing. I don’t know that I agree with that, after all Laura didn’t totally reject Carmilla’s advances and even welcomed them in the beginning.
I hate to admit when “she who must be obeyed” (my darling wife) is right, but last year, upon returning from a trip to hear Dacre Stoker speak about his great-uncle and the novel Dracula, and spending the evening with him afterwards talking all things Dracula, I was swept up in all the literary nuances of the book.
My wife and I were driving somewhere and I rattled on about the book and the weekend. It had been right up my alley! Anyway, at some point I said, “ Dracula is one of those great stories you can just read and enjoy or …”
Mary cut me off saying “ or you can analyze the crap out of it.”
I think with Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire story Carmilla, that is the best way to enjoy it. I originally read this book many years ago and wanted to refresh my memory for this column. This time I listened to a fantastic enacted version on Audible, it brought a deeper understanding of the characters and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So grab a cup, turn down the lights, cozy up to the fire and meet Carmilla.
Find this column and others from the October 2023 issue here!