August 28, 1814 saw the birth of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, an Irish Protestant writer who (like Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw) became a popular author in England as well as abroad. He, however, became best known for an enigmatic vampire tale which in effected created a subgenre–Carmilla, the first lesbian vampire.
While note-worthy, this hardly is the man’s sole point of interest. In fact, how could anyone who created such a hauntingly ambiguous narrative not himself proved compelling? Where else could he have found the depths of mystery which he so ably explored in this as well as other tales of the macabre? Too often we forget, for example, that his last and more famed novella in fact formed just one part of a large collection, Through A Glass Darkly, chronicling various and sundry exploits of occult expert (and Van Helsing predecessor) Dr. Hesselius. Looking at them as a whole, then gazing at the man’s life, gives hints as to perhaps what was going on in this man’s life. Although subtle, it was by no means uninteresting nor at all straightforward.
His family was literary and had Huguenot (French protestant) roots, hence the name. So in a real way, the man couldn’t help but feel in some sense a stranger even in his place of birth. He brought that to his writings, his ghost stories echoing many of the anxieties of the Victorian Age. Much as the narrator of Carmilla finds finds comfort as well as danger in this walking piece of the past who literally woos her, she finds protection as well as ruthless violence in the present which is her own time. Likewise the family’s financial hardships (like those of Charles Dickens), at a time when such meant shame and accusation from a culture that blamed the poor for their condition, may have contributed to the unsteady nature of the world in his stories. Plus maybe some fantasy fulfillment. Laura’s father after all lives on a tiny income but by dwelling in a most obscure, out of the way location (Styria) he can afford to rent a castle!
Mind you, all this has to be speculation. LeFanu’s private life remains oddly opaque. We know that in the 1850s some kind of spiritual crisis occurred in his and his wife’s family. Susanna LeFanu (nee Bennett) seemed to have endured a crisis of faith that caused her enormous anxiety. Her husband seems to have stopped going to church, and she herself evidently could only talk to his brother William about what-ever-she-was-going-through. In 1858 she suffered some kind of “attack” and died the next day. LeFanu did not write again for three years. Somehow this all seems to fit. Bram Stoker, who created Dracula a quarter century almost after LeFanu’s own death, had a life easy to document with plenty of trials easy to point to and offer theories about. That he went on to write a vampire tale that was also a murder mystery, an international chase, and the Victorian equivalent of a techno-thriller makes this feel proper in some way. LeFanu’s stories remain much less concrete. Facts remain frustratingly hard to pin down. Like Stoker he borrows from Irish folklore (Carmilla herself seems quite banshee-eque while her coachmen really come across as goblins), but LeFanu uses them to heighten the mystery rather than just create a fun effect.
Maybe that is why so few adaptations of Carmilla really end up very faithful to their source? Inserting dashing young men to rescue the heroine certainly seems easier than noticing that Laura never once asks to be saved. Likewise the background of the story–which people of the time would have instantly thought of as a police state–nearly always becomes a bland canvas full of trees and farmers but no human institutions putting any kind of pressure on the characters. In this at least the recent Curse of Styria as well as The Blood Spattered Bride from the 1970s remain closer to the original. Not too surprising that once Hammer made the mostly-faithful version dubbed The Vampire Lovers, British censors insisted on the loss of such ideas as women finding love without men. By the third of the so-called Karnstein Trilogy, Twins of Evil, the female lead ends up literally split into two–one a virgin, the other a whore. Guess which one was the vampire?
This same problem bedeviled LeFanu in life. In the 1860s his publisher insisted he write works of an “English” type. He managed. But that wasn’t where his imagination naturally sought to roam. He died in 1873, one year after his famous vampiress, fifteen after his wife. His reputation waxed and waned since but today he’s considered an important author of the gothic, a direct inspiration for M.R.James as well as Henry James. Societies today exist to study him and his works. In the last two years, two film versions of Carmilla were made, including The Unwanted.
He comes across as a haunted man. He wrote stories about haunted people and places. Now he haunts us, our post-modern world. How very appropriate.