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Carmilla, a Critical Edition
Sheridan Le Fanu
Syracuse University Press, 196 pages

Carmilla, a Critical Edition
Sheridan Le Fanu
Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (28 August 1814–7 February 1873) was an Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels. He was the leading ghost-story writer of the nineteenth century and was central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era. Three of his best known works are Uncle Silas, Carmilla and The House by the Churchyard.

Wikipedia: Sheridan Le Fanu
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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Although not as well known as its younger cousin, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Sheridan Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla" may be nearly as familiar to anyone with a fondness for horror or vampires. Whie it has been anthologized and filmed multiple times, "Carmilla" wasn't widely reprinted until the horror boom of the 80s. This present volume, Carmilla, a Critical Edition edited by Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, includes the original novella, four critical essays, a timeline and biographical notes.

The novella, which reverts to the first publication with minor corrections, discusses the most traumatic days in Laura's life. She says she had had a childhood dream (or was it?) of a woman standing over her bed and needles puncturing her neck. Year's later, a friendly woman, Carmilla, moves into the castle and becomes Laura's bosom companion -- needed in this lonely castle. Laura becomes sick and worsens while her friend gains a healthy pallor. When Laura has a nightmare and the doctor says he's seen this before, they ask Carmilla to be Laura's constant companion and protector... until their friend, General Spielsdorf, arrives with his tale of woe.

In terms of language alone, the novella probably cannot be considered great literature. Even by Victorian standards, it relies too heavily on telling, and its descriptive powers are weak:

  " 'Will you let me hang this picture in my room, papa?' I asked.

" 'Certainly, dear,' he said smiling, 'I'm very glad you think it so like. It must be prettier than I thought it, if it is.'

" 'The young lady did not acknowledge this pretty speech, did not seem to hear it."

 

The narrative itself though is hypnotic, especially once we discover that, through sound-seeming reasoning, the father has placed his lamb in the wolf's mouth. It creates a profound fear that even modern horror does not capture. It is this standard that makes it worthy of a critical edition.

Kathleen Costello-Sullivan introduces this slender, illustrated volume by indicating which lenses other scholars used and which these scholars will employ. Most modern readers will leap to interpretations of the dangers of lesbianism, but Jar Lath Killeen and Renée Fox instead convincingly place "Carmilla" inside the boundaries of Irish literature, clarifying the ways it addresses Irish politics and Gothic traditions. Lisabeth C. Buchelt does an intriguing job of aligning "Carmilla" more with the visual arts than with the Gothic literary. And Nancy M. West closes by surveying the screen translations and homages.

If you're interested in interpretation and aren't an academic yourself, these scholars' work will impress you. Each essay intrigued me, enhancing understanding of Le Fanu's work, especially the first three as the fourth was more of a survey. They do so without being boring as often happens with me and scholarly work. They make their points without belaboring them. I do wish that a little more discussion of Irish history or art aesthetics occurred, but they perhaps chose to make their points and leave that research to the readers.

Copyright © 2013 Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.


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