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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Carmilla (EBook, 2021, Pushkin Press) 3 stars

Carmilla is the original vampire story, steeped in the sexual tension between two young women …

An appealing charm

3 stars

Sheridan Le Fanu's 1871 novel, Carmilla, predates Bram Stoker's more famous Dracula by about twenty six years and, after having read Pushkin Press' newly published edition, I'm surprised this story isn't much better known. Admittedly it is written in a typically Victorian gothic style so lots of telling description, and a slow pace, but Le Fanu builds up a suitably chilling atmosphere and I particularly appreciated that three of the central characters are female. There might even be hints of an obsessive love affair between two of them.

I wondered whether contemporary readers of the original publication were as aware of the vampiric storyline or if its denouement in a late scene came as a shock to them. Reading Carmilla now, I could see the tropes neatly lining up as the story progressed - although Le Fanu's creatures have distinct differences to accepted present-day vampire lore - so wasn't surprised to be shown the truth. What I did like was seeing Laura's dawning realisation as she hears the exact story of her own experiences being told in relation to someone else - someone now deceased!

I would recommend Carmilla to readers of classic novels, certainly, but also to vampire story fans who are curious as to how the genre has changed and matured over the past 150 years. Carmilla is quite a short novel which I comfortably read in an afternoon. It doesn't have the action, the gore or the sass of its present-day successors, but it does have an appealing charm which drew me in and kept me interested.