#59: Carmilla

The OG lesbian vampire, as close as Victorian values will let her get

june gloom
4 min readDec 27, 2022

This review was originally posted to Twitter on February 28th, 2019

Initial release: 1872
Author: Sheridan Le Fanu

A quarter century before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula came this seminal work in the lesbian vampire genre, written, of course, by a man. And as such, it’s practically a monument to men’s fears of female intimacy. Given what social mores in the Victorian era were like, Sheridan Le Fanu had to be extremely circumspect about the lesbian themes in the novella, but they’re most certainly there if you pay close attention. The subtext is there, and sometimes it’s just plain text. Much like John Polidori’s The Vampyre, this story plays up the erotic aspect of vampirism, which, paired with the lesbian overtones of the story, have the clear purpose of titillation. Make no mistake: this is not queer fiction, though it could certainly be adapted as such.

The story goes: Laura, the daughter of a local noble or something and whose mom died years ago, befriends Carmilla, the daughter of a mysterious woman who left her behind after a wagon accident. Living in a remote part of Austria, Laura is lonely, so she’s eager for a friend. It doesn’t take long for her to realize this new friend has the same face as a mysterious apparition in a nightmare that Laura had had many years prior; Carmilla, meanwhile, claims an equal but opposite memory. It’s all very mysterious and spooky.

Carmilla goes through phases where she’s sleepy and lethargic, only to come downstairs in late afternoon refreshed. Frequently, her intentions towards Laura go from romantic to sinister, often simultaneously, and Laura seems indecisive as to whether she’s attracted or repulsed. There’s a lot of guff about Laura’s ancestors and how Carmilla resembles an old portrait from the year dot, which adds a bit of quasi-incest to the whole proceedings too. (Does it still count as incest when it’s like, ten generations removed?)

At the end of the story Carmilla is found out, hunted down and extinguished, saving Laura from a horrible fate as a vampire’s victim (and possibly even a vampire herself.) It’s all very tidy. As Lisa Simpson once put it, “maybe people were easier to scare back then.” It’s clear that the lesbian not-even-subtext to this was intended to be creepy (but remember, also titillating.) Victorian Europe certainly made no bones about how it saw homosexuality, and this book plays directly into that culture. Carmilla is aggressive and possessive; her sexuality is painted as sinister for all its allure, and in the end she’s inevitably doomed for her crimes when they find her laying in a tomb floating in seven whole-ass inches of blood.

This treatment of queer people as being aggressors out to subvert the good Christian innocence of God-fearing white kids is a theme that plays out again and again in media before and since, especially with regard to the lesbian vampire genre. And yet for all its male fear that, holy shit, women might actually be attracted to something other than men, it’s worth pointing out that, in the end, Laura still can’t quite quit her; the epilogue reads like a mixture of PTSD and lingering desire. What’s surprising is that this is no mere penny dreadful, this thing was published in serious, respectable magazines. But it’s very easily in the tradition of a hundred lesbian pulp novels a century later — themselves hardly positive representation.

There’s a trend in queer culture to reclaim toxic portrayals, if not for their representation then for their kitsch value. as someone who is mostly allergic to kitsch, I’d just as soon throw this kind of stuff into the memory hole. Non-binary folk were basically invisible until very recently, and that’s been a blessing in a way, because there’s less of a history of toxic representation. But it’s also been a curse, because as trans and non-binary issues become more discussed in the mainstream, it comes with gross shit. (As anyone who’s looked around in the last two years can attest.) Unfortunately toxic representation for pretty much everyone in Queertown is still here and probably never going to go away even if we throw every loser screaming about groomers and drag shows into the sea. Which is why I feel reclaiming toxic portrayals undermines everything we’re trying to do.

Anyway, aside from all this, Carmilla isn’t a terribly original book — it’s full of the standard gothic atmosphere, the standard vampire-novel ending, the standard innocent white girl with a dead mom. But it’s at least interesting as part of the broader vampire literary canon.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]