Laura is the only child of a rich Englishman, who lives with a few servants and her father in a castle near the ruined and abandoned village of Karnstein. When Laura was a child she had a night vision in which she was visited by a beautiful woman and felt a piercing pain in her chest. Many years later, Carmilla comes to stay at the castle, the same woman that Laura saw in her dream, shortly after people start dying in the surrounding villages and Laura becomes ill herself causing the suspicion to fall on Vampires. This suspicion is further enhanced when Laura's father's friend, the General, comes to visit and tells them of the circumstances leading to the death of his ward/niece, who was a girl similar in age to Laura, and made friends with a beautiful visitor.
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This is most definitely a 'classic' vampire story (it predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by 25 years). There is very little romanticism of the vampire race, though Carmilla is beautiful she is also deadly and should be destroyed. Interestingly enough she could go out during the day. It is somewhat refreshing to read a gothic, rather than a Young Adult, approach to vampire fiction, and I am personally surprised that gothic literature hasn't made a return in popularity, not living in the gothic era of architecture, art or literature, having a new influx of gothic authors seems to be a little too optimistic!
There was the underlying theme of sexuality that is common in gothic fiction, particularly that surrounding vampires, though what I found interesting about the sexuality and sexual tension in this book was that it was quite clearly between two women. Adding to this was the fact that of the villagers, Carmilla seemed to solely be attacking women. There were several moments of 'embracing and kissing' that did have me wondering about what the actual state of Carmilla and Laura's relationship was. I think that the 'hidden' sexual theme was more open in Carmilla than it was in Dracula, or even in other gothic fiction such as Shelley's Frankenstein or Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, and that would, and could, make Carmilla more appealing to a modern audience. However comparatively to the sexualised and romanticised vampires of today's fiction (for example those in Twilight or True Blood, neither of which I am a fan of particularly), Carmilla could be considered tame, and only those who are aware of the underlying themes of gothic literature, particularly that from such a conservative time in history, may be completely aware that it is there.
One way that Carmilla did reflect the time period when it was written was the weakness of the women in the story. The main antagonist (though other vampires are mentioned, albeit briefly) is female (and similarly to Lucy in Dracula, is portrayed as an evil seductress), and both the victims described in detail are female and are portrayed as weak, making no attempts to save themselves or even ask for help. As with Dracula it is the men that save the woman from the clutches of the evil vampires, though in this case I thought that Laura was less active in saving herself than Mina was in Dracula.
Carmilla is also a perfect example of the use of the second person narrative (when the narrator talks directly to the reader), though this is mixed with the first person narrative (from Laura's point of view). I've never been sure about the second person narrative, but in this case it worked. I believe that the idea behind it was that the story was Laura telling of events in letters to the person writing the prologue.
I realise that I am comparing Carmilla to other works of gothic fiction in my review, and that is something I don't normally tend to do, I think that the main reasons this is happening is because it is not a modern piece of fiction, because it was recommended to me on the back of a conversation about Dracula, and the fact that it is only novella length. For me, it was easy to pick up the structure and form of the gothic vampire in Carmilla, something that it has in common with Dracula, which is what makes it stand out from modern fiction.
I enjoyed this book, well worth the read if you're a fan of gothic fiction. As with a lot of gothic fiction it is easy to read and full of suspense.