Friday, 9 May 2008

What if 'Carmilla' Had Been More Successful than 'Dracula'?

I have previously discussed the modern vampire aesthetic and then when I was doing some research about 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (1818) and reading about the other reasonable novel, 'The Vampyre' written by John William Polidori (1819) which came out of the contest in 1816 (the so-called Year Without Summer) for which Shelley wrote her novel, I was then reminded of 'Carmilla' by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872). 'Carmilla' preceded Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1897) and Stoker took a lot of elements from the earlier story. 'Carmilla' is set in Styria (in what is now southern Austria) and Stoker originally set 'Dracula' there before relocating the story to the borders of Transylvania and Moldavia (now in Romania; with a large Hungarian population). At the time both Styria and Transylvania were regions of the Austria-Hungary, a large multi-national country which in the 1890s covered modern day Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and some of southern Poland and much of western Romania (it gained Bosnia in 1908). 'Carmilla' features a Dr. Hesselius, whereas 'Dracula' has Dr. Van Helsing with both acting as the rational, analytical force in the face of the fantastical and supernatural. Other characters seem parallel to Le Fanu's.

The main difference is that the main vampire in 'Carmilla' is a female, a kind of embodied spirit of Countess Mircalla Karnstein and she is ultimately defeated by having her body dug up and destroyed. Carmilla can walk through walls and turn herself into a large cat-like creature, something like a panther. She drains blood from female victims, being clearly lesbian in orientation, but she does it by biting their chests rather than their necks.

Given that 'Dracula' has been so influential on all vampire fiction since it is interesting to speculate how different things would have been if 'Carmilla' had remained the dominant novel of the genre (there were numerous vampire novels throughout the 19th century so another may alternatively have come to the fore). The key thing is the sexuality. Lesbianism was a more challenging approach to simple male dominance over women. Aside from a loose adapatation of 'Carmilla' in the 1932 film 'Vampyr', this theme is one reason why movies drawing on the story were not common before the early 1960s and particularly in the early 1970s when there was a search for stories to fill Hammer Horror movies with titilating themes that could feature beautiful actresses. 'Blood and Roses' (1960) draws directly on 'Carmilla' and there were other such themed vampire movies like 'The Brides of Dracula' (1960) (three of these feature in the original 'Dracula' novel), 'The Vampire Lovers' (1970), 'Lust for a Vampire' (1971), 'Vampyros Lesbos' (1971), 'Vampyres' (1974). To some extent these reflect the fact that there has long been an assocation with vampire characters and sexuality, as someone once said 'Dracula is all about foreplay' because of his biting of the neck, taking control over a woman and so on. I have discussed the issue around the two fangs into the neck, and Carmilla's approach of biting the chest would have developed a very different aesthetic which references to suckling blood and a whole range of other rather alarming connotations. In contrast Dracula's seemingly very neat puncture marks in the neck are less challenging.

For me what is intriguing is if the dominant image of a vampire was female rather than male. It is interesting that Carmilla was not a femme fatale in the usually perceived way in that she sought to encapture men, so it would have created a differen stock character in other genres such as detective stories, which occasionally had the 'evil lesbian' but much less so than one who sought to exploit men, and even then usually through beauty rather than power. The other differences would have been the association with big cats rather than bats or dogs which Dracula is associated with. To some extent the cat appearance relates back to traditional stories of witches' familiars and then forwards to 'Catwoman' styles of the 20th century, notably in 'Batman' (from 1939). The other thing is the location. Even today Transylvania is seen as distant, somewhat and backward part of Europe with ethnic problems between the Hungarian population there living in Romania. In contrast, whilst Styria is mountainous it lies much closer to the heart of Europe and to cities in Austria, southern Germany and northern Italy. Even in the late 19th century it was less remote and so what we may have seen earlier was the more urban sophisticated vampire that has really only come to the fore from the 1980s.

If Stoker had felt his novel to be too derivative (and one must not dismiss in fact there are real elements of innovation that he brought to the genre, I do not want to do the book down entirely) of 'Carmilla' or he had never finished it. It would be interesting to have seen if the vampire novel and the following films would have still found a way to move in the direction of the way he portrayed it, i.e. male and in Transylvania, as those things fitted with what society was willing to tolerate rather than female in Styria. To some degree it is probably about market. On average 90% of the population is heterosexual and whilst many heterosexual men enjoy stylised lesbian sexual activity, an author writing a lesbian story is appealing to a much smaller market and one that has only really become open since the feminist era of the 1970s. The issue more broadly is, though, that the dominance of 'Dracula' has possibly closed off other explorations of the vampire aesthetic (despite Anne Rice) which look at it from a female perspective for more than titilating reasons. Though it is noted that 'Carmilla' was written by a man for men, as the Japanese magazine 'Carmilla' has done it is possible to recapture the usage for women. At the time the fact that the baddie is a woman as strong as the men she fights was unusual, so despite the possible intentions of the author it can be seen as including feminist elements that do not seem to have been developed by authors since.

You can access:-
'Carmilla' here:
An article on how 'Dracula' masculinised vampire stories after 'Carmilla' here:
'Dracula' here:
'The Vampyre' here:

1 comment:

MCG said...

I love Le Fanu's stories; he still seems very readable compared to other genre writers of the same time and he had some genuinely creepy ideas. But more on-topic: the wiki page on Carmilla has a huge list of adaptations.