Finding Refuge in a Queer Vampire Novella
Gabrielle Bellot on the Unsung Classic That Made Her Feel Less Alone
Sometimes a book is a forbidden thing, even as it stands visible, for years, on the shelf, accumulating dust and the translucent bones of little spiders, because though it is there, you are not supposed to take it down. Or it lives in that musty yellow sleep of long-unopened library books, back in some old aisle echoing with the silent footfalls of ghosts, dreaming of being opened. Or it’s a webpage you know you aren’t supposed to scroll, glowing with a Mephistophelean charm. When you do open it—however, wherever you do—all the clocks seem to slow and you forget, for brief-seeming hours, where you are.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla—a seminal, if unsung, queer Irish novella from 1872, which follows the travails of a young woman named Laura and her father after a beautiful vampire named Carmilla, who only feeds on and seems smitten with women, visits Laura—was one of those books for me. It was one of the first texts I read specifically because it contained something I had buried deep in me: my desire to come out as a trans girl and, beyond that, as a woman who might love any gender, including other women. But for most of my childhood and teenage years I was brought up to believe the desires in me were ungodly, were biblical abominations, were iniquitous and infernal. Le Fanu’s novella is the matriarch of a vast, if sometimes hilariously campy, genre: lesbian vampire tales, and narratives about women vampires more broadly. The supernatural part wasn’t what drew me so much as a simpler thing: the idea of two women holding, loving each other.
While Carmilla is comparatively tame—even contradictory—as a queer text, more capacious and fulfilling examples of which I would find later, it always had a soft roost, a vespertilian home, in my heart, as it has for many queer readers; this is why it never dies, but keeps rising in new forms, like its Sapphic 1970s remake, The Vampire Lovers (a famous lesbian scene of which visibly appalled a cluster of my conservative students), or the delightful queer web series of the same name that reimagines the gothic novella on a contemporary college campus. And Carmilla is seminal in another way, as well: without it, Bram Stoker’s Dracula—published two decades after Le Fanu’s novella and containing a seeming reference to it in a deleted early chapter—may not have existed. Beyond this, Carmilla may even be read as a striking metaphor for the 19th-century battle over the so-called Irish question of whether or not Britain should rule Ireland; after Carmilla, British and Irish political cartoonists sometimes employed vampire bats in their depictions of the war between British dominion (“The English Vampire” in The Irish Pilot, presenting a hideous rotund bat marked “British Rule” rebuffed by a fierce, Junoesque Ireland) and Irish nationalism itself (“The Irish Vampire” in Punch, featuring a horrific bat labeled “National League” descending to drain the life from an unconscious Ireland, implying that such nationalism was supposedly self-defeating, like Swift’s immodest proposal).
I first heard of Le Fanu’s naughty novella as a teen. In college, a poet with silky dark curls who told me he could see the beautiful girl I was hiding and who followed me around with a Whitmanian hunger told me of it one day as he listed erotic queer texts. In a poetry class, I remembered him slowly, devouringly reading aloud the lubricious love letters of a sort between Stoker and Whitman, in which Stoker outlined his physical dimensions, his consuming admiration for the poems—and, perhaps more, the poet. Once, my college bard took me up to a dorm and vituperated the Bible, which, despite my ever-increasing skepticism for religious myths, scared me; I wondered if, at his blasphemy, the floor would open its ophidian orange maw, fanged with flame, and swallow us. At the time, I had not come out to anyone—hardly even to myself—and I lived, each day, pretending to be masculine and straight. I denied my feelings were real. To do otherwise, I knew, was to risk losing family, friends, even my home, as queer was simply not something you were allowed to openly be back home in Dominica.
I lived in this flickering theatre of the self. I felt sad, incomplete, drifting under the eternal moonlight of a spotted mind. So much felt false, hollowed like the sneering of jack-o-lanterns. I wanted, more than anything, to hold someone I loved and have them see me back, love me back, as a woman.
But if you reveal too much of yourself, you may lose yourself.
So you dance on a stage as you walk the roads in the capital that scarcely have sidewalks, pretend as you kiss, as you fuck, as you tell the world your plans for the future, most ending in –man. You hate yourself, privately, but you pretend to love it, and, sometimes, you forget enough to genuinely love the present, even as the old coffin-bells will ring inside you, again. It becomes harder not to hear them. The days lengthen like shadows, until the night’s hair becomes your own, her tresses fragrant with old seaweed and the heads of chopped coconuts rotting near condoms, her curls twinkling with the fireflies of the houses dotting the dark mountains, and you consider, more and more, becoming part of the night: fleeing into her comforting obscurity to find someone to hold, or just walking into the dark, pathless, sightless as Tiresias, until you hear someone who is not there walking behind you, asking you to take her hand the first and last time. The more we pretend to fit into a narrow world the more we live as if not-alive, deceptive zombi, like the stupefied near-dead created by a Haitian bokor. It all seems absurd yet somehow appealing, like scuba-diving in a volcano.
Like scuba-diving, you learn to live, despite the pressure all around you, by breathing, by equalizing, by letting all the world become the drone of your own air, even as your air under such pressures is limited, and you will fade, self-shipwreck, if you stay too long.
Sometimes you slip up. You post profile pictures of women, wanting people to think she represents something in you, even as you are terrified they will actually think this. You get called gay, get called that curious title in some of our islands anti-man, denoting the man who seems disgustingly a woman, and suddenly your cousins, concerned, are asking why their friends are flooding their chat and texts with such questions, before you reassure them it is all lies, all stupidness, fuck batty bwoy. You get hit. You steal makeup from stores and your mother and wear flecks of it to your all-boys school, hoping everyone sees it and hoping, even more, they do not.
Always the eyes, the eyes. Their eyes gorgonize, make your insides cold as river-stone, and so you find ways to hide: kiss in rooms dark and quiet as sand; undress in clusters of bamboos, your brief fortress; fuck under the cover of the drone of river or booming stereo that will drown out the moans or bedsprings you still try to muffle; take girlfriends or boyfriends to construct the semblance of societal normalcy; sing along to songs that call for people like you to be killed, bun out di chi-chi, yes, you dance to the beat of a song about queer immolation because that is what everyone does and isn’t the riddim they used good. You are fire and air, like Cleopatra, but you fear the fire will become too real if you dance too close to your desires.
You start silently losing the pink thread of who you even are, like Cortázar’s axolotl, until you feel you will lose it all unless you do something.
When I read that little verboten book one night in Dominica, all in one go as an e-text, this was how I felt, even if I didn’t want to admit it, even if I was afraid the god I had almost stopped believing in yet still feared would hurt me. I had been brainwashed. I was, like so many in the closet, a mess of dust and damp. The book didn’t save me, but it made me want more—and that desire, perhaps, did.
European vampire fiction has a long, murky, history, which some critics divide into three categories of depiction: the folkloric vampire, which predates Carmilla and Dracula, and is often described as a blood-bloated, stinky, repulsive corpse; the Byronic or aristocratic model, which describes Dracula and a few earlier male figures in 19th-century British fiction, like the first “modern” vampire, Count Ruthven in John Polidori’s 1819 short story “The Vampyre” (supposedly based on Lord Byron, and delivered at the same legendary ghost-story session in Geneva at which Mary Shelley revealed Frankenstein) or the 1845 novel Varney the Vampire; and the femme fatale, which characterizes Carmilla.
The latter two types most clearly feature the imagery that would soon become the standard of countless American and European films and texts in the next two centuries. Although distinct in terms of how they portray their monsters—be they as hideous, fetid corpses, or seductive humanlike figures—the most famous 19th-century texts of the genre tend to draw from all three categories. The idea of vampires being harmed by sunlight—one of the most common traits in the literature—only appeared, however, in the landmark 1922 film Nosferatu (ordered destroyed and nearly lost), which departed from the mold of Carmilla and Dracula by resuscitating the folkloric vampire: Count Orlok as a repugnant, corpse-like creature, whose spindly shadow creeping up a staircase is still as eerie as it is funny today.
Supernatural tales are excellent vectors for social criticism, and the 19th-century vampire tale often symbolized colonialist fears, forbidden sexualities, and class struggles. Dracula, also written by an Irishman, depicts a man “infecting” England and transforming it into something like him from the inside, which was a common colonial fear: that the oppressed would rise up and take their oppressors over in “reverse” conquest. Carmilla, too, is an impressionistic album of imperial iconography of Ireland and England. Laura, the product of an English father and Styrian mother, has an English name, but is not fully English, echoing the idea of enforced British identity upon the Irish; their manor, though set in Styria, resembles a typical Anglo-Irish Great House. Carmilla’s home is in the direction of Ireland, and a portrait of her dates from 1698, the year of Britain’s draconian anti-Catholic laws. Carmilla, whose extraordinary beauty echoes the otherworldly allure of fairy-women or spéirbhean in the Irish poetic genre of the aisling, feeds on Laura, not unlike Dracula on England—but, crucially, Laura feels ambiguous about Carmilla, just as Le Fanu occupied a political middle ground on the Irish question.
Moreover, when Carmilla first appears, she comes in a carriage that has supposedly suffered an accident—a ruse to get her victims to take her into their homes—and her retinue, seemingly incongruously, includes a black woman wearing a turban. This enigmatic entity never reappears, but she is a foundational symbol: a black woman locked in the cage of the carriage, wide eyes and salient white teeth echoing the caricatures of American minstrelsy. In Carmilla’s world, she may represent the stereotyped way the British “saw” the Irish, as we see her through Laura’s eyes. She is also an avatar of Orientalism, evoking, vaguely, the romanticized “East”—as described by Edward Said—so in vogue in Le Fanu’s time.
Carmilla’s portrait of the Other captures not just queer women, then, but, more broadly, the Irish, so often degradingly caricatured by the English.
After Carmilla, I wanted more. At the time, it seemed startling, positively supercalifragilistic, and made me dream. I made the mistake of asking my mum on one of her trips to the US to buy me Rubyfruit Jungle; she came back bookless and mortified, shocked that a Barnes and Noble employee had led her to the Gay and Lesbian section. Later, I found truer narratives wherein I saw queer, trans persons like me, multifaceted and real. This is why representation matters: it makes someone feel less alone.
Certainly, Carmilla is imperfect as a queer text. Just as True Blood’s TV writer Alan Ball cautioned against reading the show as an analogy for LGBTQ rights despite its liberal use of iconic queer-rights catchphrases—“the show could be seen to be very homophobic,” Ball said, “because vampires are dangerous. They kill, they’re amoral”—it’s difficult to avoid that Le Fanu’s only overtly lesbian character is a murderous monster, who forces herself upon Laura. (In The Vampire Lovers, Laura lies still, disturbingly doll-like, as Carmilla kisses her.) There is little indication Le Fanu thought of Carmilla as legions of LGBTQ readers later would; he may even have intended its themes of forbidden love to symbolically intensify how “bad” Carmilla is.
But even so, there is something inescapably attractive about this quiet tale. Laura herself remembers Carmilla with a telling mix of emotions: “Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.” No matter her creator’s intentions, Carmilla is difficult to forget. And I always feel happy when I see young queer readers reference it or its titular femme fatale, who many a first-time reader may find silly, even as they secretly hope she, or what she represents, appears at their bedside one lonely night, and takes their hand.