Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever."
Classic Gothic novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, originally published in 1871 in a magazine called "The Dark Blue" and later in a book called "In a Glass Darkly," a collection of Le Fanu's short stories.
The plot, briefly, involves a girl named Laura who lives with her father in a castle in the middle of a forest in Styria, a state in southeast Austria. Laura is deeply lonely and looks forward to a visitor her own age -- who unfortunately dies under mysterious circumstances. But soon, she gets a new companion, a girl who has been involved in a carriage accident. Laura and her new friend, Carmilla, recognize each other from a dream they somehow shared when they were children -- Laura remembers a strange and beautiful visitor who bit her in the chest; Carmilla seems to remember a similar dream about Laura.
The girls become close friends, but Carmilla has distinctly unsettling moods. She refuses to tell Laura anything about herself, she sleeps during the day, sleepwalks at night, is enraged when Laura sings hymns, and would clearly like to become romantically involved with Laura. And a 200-year-old portrait depicting Mircala, Countess Karnstein, is a dead ringer for Carmilla.
Laura also begins having nightmares about a cat-like creature that comes into her room and bites her. Laura becomes sick, and the attending doctor is disturbed by his examination of her. Soon, Laura and her father set out to visit the ancient village of Karnstein, meeting General Spielsdorf, the father of the girl who died before coming to visit Laura. The General tells them that his daughter made friends with a girl named Millarca and began suffering from an illness like Laura's. When he discovered a cat-like monster biting his daughter, he attacked, it took the form of Millarca, and vanished before the girl died. Millarca, of course, is Carmilla is Mircalla is a vampire. Can Laura be saved from the bloodlust of the undead, or is she doomed to death at the fangs of her would-be lover?
Is it scary? Well, I don't know. Scariness is something that gets difficult to judge with most works as old as "Carmilla" is. Stuff that absolutely freaked our ancestors out barely manages a yawn today. But "Carmilla" does bring a lot of creepiness, a lot of mood, and a lot of suspense to the proceedings. We know something is seriously weird with Carmilla and with her mother. We know that Laura is in danger. More than likely, we even know that Carmilla is a vampire, because this story is pretty well-known. But even though we know a lot about Carmilla and we have a pretty good idea how it's all going to end, there's still a lot here to put the chill in your bones. It probably helps that Le Fanu did a better job of bringing the sexy than Stoker ever did in "Dracula" -- the sexual thrills we get from the story just help heighten our nervousness about the dangers Laura is facing.
Why is "Carmilla" considered important? Well, aside from being an interestingly frightening gothic tale, this story introduced the world to one of the most enduring archetypes of horror: the lesbian vampire. Basically, without "Carmilla," you wouldn't have most of the movies that came out of Hammer Films in the 1970s.
And certainly more important is the influence Le Fanu's story has had over vampire fiction since its publication. The earliest draft of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was set in Styria; descriptions of Carmilla and Stoker's Lucy Westenra are similar; and Le Fanu's character Baron Vordenburg, who reveals much of the story's information about vampires, is very much like Stoker's Abraham Van Helsing.
"Carmilla" has been adapted in numerous films, including Danish director Carl Dreyer's "Vampyr" in 1932; Roger Vadim's "Et mourir de plaisir" ("Blood and Roses" in the British version) in 1960; the classic Hammer Films shocker "The Vampire Lovers" starring Ingrid Pitt in 1970; and multiple other movies.
Characters based on Carmilla have appeared in novels, comics, anime (including both "Hellsing" and "Vampire Hunter D"), and even an episode of "Doctor Who" (Season 18's "State of Decay" starring Tom Baker). She has also inspired musicians, including Cradle of Filth, an Italian gothic metal band called Theatres des Vampires, and Ben Johnston and Wilford Leach, who created a chamber opera version of "Carmilla" in 1970.
The following Spring my father took me a tour through Italy. We remained away for more than a year. It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of 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.