The 1872 novella, "Carmilla", by Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is often credited with establishing the particulars of vampire lore and having a profound influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula.
The question that will form the essence of this exploration is whether the modern re-tellings of the 1872 novella are actually pastiches or are they works of fan-fiction? In other words, are these works an imitation or re-interpretation of the original, or are they an extension / expansion of the novella?
The works under consideration in this essay are modern re-tellings of Le Fanu's Carmilla that have been formally published.[i] By "formally published," I simply mean available for purchase on Amazon.com; whether self-published or traditionally published; paper or digital. Only in one case, Carmilla: The Return, can the work even be considered a sequel; though here as well an argument can be made that this is simply a more creative re-telling of the original. This will be discussed and expanded upon further. What follows are not summaries or synopses of the works under review. Rather, more my thoughts as well as certain pertinent highlights I believed worthy of note.
For the purpose of this essay, I define[ii] the term "pastiche" as:
a dramatic, literary, or musical piece openly imitating the previous works of other artists;
and the term "fanfiction" as:
fiction written by fans as an extension of an admired work or series of works . . .
Before entering into this discussion of published Carmilla fiction and whether pastiche or fanfiction, I want to consider four versions of the original Carmilla as Le Fanu wrote it, to establish a baseline to compare the other works against.
A major theme all these works address is the passage of time within the story. Even in Le Fanu's original, the flow of time is vague and at times unclear. For my own understanding, very basically, this is how I interpret chronology within Le Fanu's Carmilla:
*The major events of the tale take place when Laura is 19 years old.
*Laura writes the narrative when she is 27. She states that she is writing the narrative 8 years after the events in the story, though later she states that 10 years have past; creating ambiguity.
*based on the above, Laura is also 27 when the narrative ends; when she perceives Carmilla's presence.
*It is assumed that Laura "dies" some short time after completing the narrative.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The first version of "Carmilla" I read was this stand alone version. For my taste, this was an excellent introduction to Le Fanu's classic tale. I was able to appreciate the significance of the story's place in nineteenth century supernatural literature as well as seeing how Stoker built upon it's foundation a little over twenty years later.
In a Glass Darkly
(Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural) (2007)
J. S. Le Fanu
This version, found in In A Glass Darkly, was a reprint of the 1872 collection, the final tale of which was "Carmilla" and was comprised of a series of letters written by Laura to some unknown person. In A Glass Darkly indicates that person is Dr. Hesselius.
This collection framed each of the stories as episodes or cases, documenting, sometimes in the form of letters, the work of Dr. Hesselius. Each tale was prefaced with commentary by Hesselius' editor. This is how the readers learn, for example, that Laura supposedly died shortly after completing her narrative.
This was the most enjoyable form of the tale I have read to date.
J. S. Le Fanu & Jamieson Ridenhour (Editor)
This scholarly, annotated edition of Le Fanu's Carmilla was not, in itself, nearly as helpful or as insightful as I had hoped. Though it did offer three things that made this edition worthwhile, in my opinion.
Firstly, I must state that the introducti0n by the editor is excellent. I highly recommend it.
Secondly, excerpted from the introduction, the author writes that "Carmilla— dark-haired, predatory, and highly sexualized— does indeed seem like a negative image of fair-haired, passive, virginal Laura." This quote exemplifies the contrasting and complementary traits of both principle characters. To my knowledge, it is the best single statement on the nature of the relationship between Laura and Carmilla.
Lastly, and that which redeemed this edition in my mind is that it is not based upon the version of "Carmilla" found in Le Fanu's collection, In A Glass Darkly published in 1872. Rather the version of Carmilla presented here is the earlier, original serialized version from a journal, The Dark Blue, published in 1871-72. The narrative framework from In A Glass Darkly was not part of this early version, so no mention was made of Hesselius or of Laura's passing.
The Annotated Carmilla (2011)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Edited by D. MacDowell Blue
This is a superb annotated edition of Le Fanu's original. THE definitive scholarly edition, in my opinion. The annotations in this version are exhaustively in-depth and comprehensive. This is what I was hoping for when I first read the scholarly edition (see above).
Also, a note before we begin. This text includes the prologue from In A Glass Darkly.
The Preface contained wonderful literary commentary and was excellent overall. The introduction entitled "Any More Ghost Stories" provided historic context. Also, the introduction recognized and addressed the chronological contradictions in Le Fanu's text.
Of the Notes themselves, I will just call attention to a few which I consider interesting and pertinent to this study.
Note 007 - Wow! Just how long before Hesselius' editor's compilation were Laura's letters written? And were they originally written to and for Dr. Hesselius in the first place?
Note 008 - This lengthy note debates Laura's role as narrator / letter writer. See further discussion below.
Note 124 - The mysterious Matska and her weird role in the tale are examined.
Note 141 - The only physical description of Laura - blond with blue eyes.
Note 160 - This note touches upon the chronological inconsistencies as reported by Laura. Is she an unreliable narrator? Or does this represent a blending of two different manuscripts? If so, by who? Laura, or Le Fanu?
Note 164 - Laura seems to be addressing her letters to a female! Who is she? Were the letters that make up this story not originally intended for Hesselius as implied in the text? Also, here again, is there perhaps a blending of two different manuscript versions? Or is this yet another example of Laura as an unreliable narrator?
Note 198 - The montebank makes reference to Carmilla's unusual tooth: "...the sharpest tooth, long, thin, pointed like an awl, like a needle."
Note 301 - In the text between Note 298 and 299, there is a description of what Laura's mysterious bite on her neck felt like, "two needles piercing the skin." This note, however, implies only a single awl-like puncture (see Note 198 above), rather than a double-puncture bite. In addition, the description of the bite area is more like a small hickey rather than a bite mark.
Note 403 - This final note suggests that Laura is still haunted by her experience with and unresolved feelings for a vampire "who maybe really did love her."
There are 403 notes in this work, corresponding to 38% of the entire text. By any measure, that is impressive. A very few, I thought, were unnecessary or too in-depth. But I prefer "too much" rather than "too little" and am glad the editor chose to err in this way.
The editor of this exemplary edition, David MacDowell Blue, is also a playwright, one of whose passions is Carmilla. Lately, he has devoted digital ink on the blog Taliesin Meets the Vampires on Carmilla and the place of vampires in popular culture. In addition, he has published a one-act play entitled Carmilla: A Play in One Act. See my comments on it in the concluding part of this essay.
This annotated version of Le Fanu's original is a valuable and worthy addition to any library on 19th century supernatural horror. It's thoroughness and complete coverage of the story caused me to re-examine my understanding of the tale and re-open my mind to other possible interpretations.
Thank you, Mr. Blue.
When published in In A Glass Darkly, "Carmilla" and the other tales in the collection were each provided with a prologue that connected the stories. In the prologue of "Carmilla," we are informed that Laura has died. It states:
As I publish the case, in this volume, simply to interest the "laity," I shall forestall the intelligent lady, who relates it, in nothing; and after due consideration, I have determined, therefore, to abstain from presenting any précis of the learned Doctor's reasoning, or extract from his statement on a subject which he describes as "involving, not improbably, some of the profoundest arcana of our dual existence, and its intermediates."
I was anxious on discovering this paper, to reopen the correspondence commenced by Doctor Hesselius, so many years before, with a person so clever and careful as his informant seems to have been. Much to my regret, however, I found that she had died in the interval.
She, probably, could have added little to the Narrative which she communicates in the following pages, with, so far as I can pronounce, such conscientious particularity.
Of course, the "intelligent lady" informant was Laura. Regarding her passing, there is no other comment. No further detail. Just this mysterious statement . . . As if it is meant to be glossed over and forgotten. The writer of the prologue praised Laura and her record of the events of the story. Several reviewers and commentators have gone so far as to call Laura an "unreliable narrator" because of her ambiguity in presenting certain facts, events, and people.[iii] In actuality, it is Laura's letters alone that form the entirety of the tale. Not only Laura's recollections of events, but also her thoughts and feelings form her narrative . . . But only what she chose to reveal.
I do not believe that Laura is an "unreliable narrator." Rather, I believe that Le Fanu, through Laura, is providing the reader with possibilities. If the reader believed that Laura was keeping certain things out of her correspondence, it is because whatever it was, in Laura's mind, was private and not for public knowledge. The reader is left to their own devices to draw whatever conclusion regarding this that they wish.
In a December 2011 post in the blog Victorian Gothic, entitled "Before Dracula, there was Carmilla" (in addition to an excellent summary of the tale) several very pertinent questions were raised regarding Le Fanu's intentions at the conclusion of the novella. Similarly, in a masterful article in the collection of essays on Le Fanu, Reflections in a Glass Darkly[iv], among the issues the author raises are questions surrounding the climactic fight scene as well as the postscript that closes the narrative. The article's author also notes that in that final confrontation, Laura choose to stand with her father instead of Carmilla. Though it appears this decision may not have been final:
Although Laura appears to choose her father against Carmilla, the glimpse Le Fanu provides of her future suggests that this decision is not an easy one. That Laura is forever haunted by Carmilla, continues to hear her step outside the drawing room door, and is actually dead by the time the narrative reached the Editor is highly suggestive of the possibility that she has ultimately revoked that choice of the father . . . and returned to her . . . Carmilla.[v]
Regarding the postscript in which Laura returns the narrative to her present time, the author further intimates that the end of the novella may not have been the end of Carmilla's and Laura's story:
However, the story ends on a profoundly ambivalent note. After all, we are plainly told that those who are bitten by the vampire will themselves become vampires and therefore there is no reason to suppose that Laura and Bertha are not now vampires as well–indeed, Laura's final line indicates that 'often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door,' and she is herself dead by the time the story is being published. This line might even indicate that far from being finally vanquished, Carmilla is still lurking somewhere.[vi]
Taking this into consideration, one possible interpretation is that in her "death," Laura was not so much dead and buried, but rather dead and risen.
Perhaps to join Carmilla.
What I choose to infer from this is that Le Fanu, instead of laying all the answers out for the reader, provided an opportunity or an opening for the reader.
What happens after Laura "imagines" hearing Carmilla's tread outside her door?
What happens after Laura "dies" so quietly and abruptly?
So . . . What happens next? . . .
I believe Le Fanu is giving us the chance to answer for ourselves.
. . . to be continued . . .
[i] I choose to use the word "re-tellings" as opposed to "adaptation or "interpretation" because I feel that adaptation and interpretation are just a less pretentious way of saying pastiche.
[ii] Both definitions are taken from the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition (http://www.thefreedictionary.com).
[iii] A more succinct definition of "unreliable narrator" is a person telling a story that cannot be relied upon for the truthfulness of their narrative because of contradictions, half-truths and outright lies.
[iv] "In the Name of the Mother: Perverse Maternity in 'Carmilla'" by Jarlath Killen, a lecturer in Victorian Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.
[v] Killen, Jarlath. "In the Name of the Mother: Perverse Maternity in 'Carmilla'" in Reflection in a Glass Darkly. Page 383.
[vi] Ibid. Page 383.