“At the same time a light unexpectedly sprang up, and I saw Carmilla, standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.”
This, from J S Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (first published in 1872), is the image that launched a thousand horror films. It’s a characteristic moment for Le Fanu, whose scenes of supernatural horror often burst into view with the force of a jump-cut or a lightning flash, defying reason and rationality — as when, for instance, Justice Harbottle (in the 1872 tale of the same name) looks out from his coach window to see the sudden vision of a gigantic three-branched gallows complete with a hangman whose nose, lips and chin “were pendulous and loose”; or when Schalken the Painter (again, from the tale of the same name) is led into a crypt by the ghost of his former love, Rose Velderkaust, and suddenly shown “the livid and demoniac form” of her undead husband.
Although not his weirdest or most inventive, “Carmilla” is probably Le Fanu’s best-written and best-plotted tale, one of many of his in which a person is tied to a supernatural or fantastic double which they fear but cannot escape, and which becomes a baleful influence draining away their life (the leering monkey-thing in “Green Tea” has an almost Kafkaesque purity in this respect).
“Carmilla” is a vampire story. Published a quarter of a century before Dracula, its suspense nevertheless relies on its reader understanding the nature of the villain well before the narrator does — knowing, for instance, just what Carmilla’s nighttime absence from her locked-from-the-inside bedroom must mean. But calling Carmilla a villain is wrong. In Le Fanu’s tale, Carmilla is not characterised as evil so much as of a different (and predatory) nature. When the father of her prime victim sits there self-satisfyingly saying that God will protect them from the “plague” of deaths currently affecting the local peasantry, Carmilla (unbeknownst to them the cause of it all) bursts out with:
“Creator! Nature! … And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature—don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth…”
Later, one character wonders why “Heaven should tolerate so monstrous an indulgence of the lusts and malignity of hell.” But it’s because this is not a good-versus-evil world, and Carmilla is not “malignant” — she’s merely driven by the dictates of her own “nature”, as much prey to her own longings, both emotional and physical, as any human being:
“The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.”
Le Fanu’s best moments are those where the supernatural makes itself suddenly known. He combines this with the casual delivery of strangely specific details, details which are not necessarily explicit or horrific, but which worry you, make you think, make you imagine, and ultimately convince you they must be real. It’s this two-pronged attack of surreal details delivered with a cool detachment that allows his spooky images to creep in through the back door of your mind, often by way of your spine’s tingle nerve. Another scene of Carmilla appearing by her victim’s bedside at night is just as cinematic as the one I quoted at the start, but this one makes me think of a different generation of horror films — the weird collage-like video of Sadako in the Japanese version of Ring:
“I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little to the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.”
The effect is weird, and so specific, yet unreasoned, as to command a great deal of confidence that what the author is describing is real, precisely because it seems so odd.
The best bit of spooky writing from Le Fanu, though, comes in his “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House” (1861), which mixes utterly believable human behaviour with a sudden flash of tersely-described horror:
“But the worst of all was poor Kitty Halpin, the young woman that died of what she seen. Her mother said it was how she was kept awake all the night with the walking about of someone in the next room, tumbling about boxes and pulling open drawers and talking and sighing to himself, and she, poor thing, wishing to go to sleep and wondering who it could be, when in he comes, a fine man, in a sort of loose silk morning-dress an’ no wig, but a velvet cap on, and to the windy with him quiet and aisy, and she makes a turn in the bed to let him know there was someone there, thinking he’d go away, but instead of that, over he comes to the side of the bed, looking very bad, and says something to her — but his speech was thick and queer, like a dummy’s that id be trying to spake — and she grew very frightened, and says she, ‘I ask your honour’s pardon, sir, but I can’t hear you right,’ and with that he stretches up his neck high out of his cravat, turning his face up towards the ceiling, and — grace between us and harm! — his throat was cut across like another mouth, wide open, laughing at her; she seen no more, but dropped in a dead faint in the bed…”