The Countess before the Count

While we may like to inundate ourselves in the new tales and spins on vampires, every now and then, to truly appreciate their enduring presence in fiction, we must look back to those stories that inspired the genre, and even further back to the ones that inspired them. You cannot mention vampires without at least thinking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Even without reading it, you will have heard of it. However, less well known is the story which influenced Stoker. Before the count, there was the countess.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was, in the nineteenth century, one of the leading ghost-story writers. Among his works he wrote of a beguiling young woman who insinuates herself into the homes of her unsuspecting victims. Entitled Carmillaalso the name of the beautiful villain, the Gothic novella was published in 1872, and it is the story that had the biggest influence in the creation of Dracula.

The story is written as if it were a recounting of events by Laura, who was nearly consumed by the vampiress Carmilla, to Dr. Hesselius, who has taken a great interest in her case. From this limited perspective, even with the advantage of hindsight, we are drawn into the understanding of how a young woman of Laura’s station in life could be exposed to, and fall prey to, such an unnatural creature. It is always fun to think we, who have read and seen enough of the vampire genre to know a vampire, would never be caught unsuspecting, but ever notice how vampires don’t seem to prey on the worldly? For Laura, reason is supposed to supersede superstition, and though Carmilla’s habits may at times seem eccentric they hardly fall outside of the realm of convention for a lady.

Through Laura’s recounting we learn a few things about vampires, some of which has carried on throughout other tales of vampires, but some which I’m not sure are explored more. According to this story vampires are “subject, in certain situations, to special conditions.” From what I can tell of Carmilla these conditions are thus:

  • A vampire must renew themselves by spending some time in their grave, in which their coffin is filled to some degree with blood to support their “amphibious existence.”
  • They lust for the blood of the living.
  • They are drawn to a victim whom they pursue with a diligent patience and attention as one might bestow upon a lover regardless of gender.
  • There is a peculiar limitation on a vampire’s name which allows for anagrammatic reconstruction. (ex: Mircalla, Millarca, Carmilla)
  • A locked door is no obstacle for a vampire, nor is a locked window, as they can circumvent either without disturbing the lock. (They also slip in and out of their grave without disturbing the ground or any of the crypt entrappings.)
  • A vampire has a deceptively strong grip, which also causes some sort of paralysis or nerve damage.
  • “A suicide, under certain circumstances” or a victim of a vampire “spectre” may become a vampire.
  • During they day the can appear as alive as anyone, though they seems prone to fatigue.
  • The only way to kill a vampire is to stake it in its grave, decapitate it, then burn it to ash to be scattered upon a running river.

Of all the conditions mentioned above the two that perk my interest is Fanu’s reference to vampries as having an “amphibious existence” which is specifically mentioned twice in Carmilla, and the anagrammatic name issue.

To be amphibious is to be suited to live in water as well as on land, like a frog. A frog is born in water where it stays until it is mature and can survive on land, though it must stay near water where it can moisten its skin regularly. So then what does it mean for a vampire to have an “amphibious existence?” I guess that youthful appearance must be maintained by regular moistening of the skin in blood, which is not achieved by drinking it.

The anagrammatic name must be one of those ideas that gives other writers a headache, as I have not seen it come up in other vampire stories. Why would it when it is so much easier to just assume another name by either identity theft or simply making one up? Still, it does make for an interesting constraint. Think how easy that might make tracing a vampire’s history for an occult detective.

Speaking of occult detectives, Fanu’s collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, in which Carmilla is also included, is presented as if they are all cases in which Dr. Martin Hesselius has taken an interest as an occult detective.  The character of Dr. Hesselius can be related in this way to the character of Professor Abraham Van Helsing in Stoker’s Dracula. 

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