Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Carmilla is a lesbian vampire novella that predates Dracula by over 25 years. I had been meaning to pick this book up for years, just based off that description, but I wanted to save it for an October read. This year I finally got around to it, and I think it makes the perfect quick sapphic Halloween read.

If you’re anything like me, you probably expect Carmilla to be pretty subtextual. This is the Victorian era, surely this isn’t a blatantly lesbian book? As I began to read it, though, I found more and more passages that were fairly straightforward. As the two girls meet, Laura and Carmilla, they hold hands, smile, and blush. Carmilla fawns over Laura, calling her darling, and making Laura confused and uncomfortable.

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

Living in such an overwhelmingly heteronormative time, Laura can’t fathom why Carmilla would act like this. She asks whether they’re related, and muses that maybe Carmilla is a man in disguise trying to seduce her, like sometimes happens in storybooks. (This was a time so heteronormative that Boston marriages and romantic friendships were seen as totally acceptable for straight women.)

So how did a book so blatantly queer get published in 1872? Because Carmilla is a monster. Laura is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to this queer monster. But because she is a vampire, Carmilla’s actions and attractions are unambiguously cast as bad, therefore letting the story get told. (Lesbian pulp followed this formula: the ending had to punish the gay characters, to make the whole book seem like a warning, despite anything that happened beforehand.)

As Carmilla proves, vampires have been associated with lesbianism for more than a century. And this book shows how those fears can be tangled together in a straight society. The idea that the charming young woman your daughter is associating with could be the enemy, that she could invade your home under the guise of something as sweet and pure as female friendship: what a terrifying thought! The lesbian vampire is a monster in disguise, a monster that can appear as angelic as a young, fragile woman. Like lesbian pulp, this image is something I find hilarious now, but in the context of the time period does show the overwhelming homophobia of the environment. (Though even this iteration of vampire lore does offer some sympathy to Carmilla.)

This is a great read for a look at the beginnings of vampire lore as we know it now, as well as having the allure of being able to read a Victorian lesbian story. Unfortunately, the compromise is that the plot of Carmilla relies almost entirely on the reader not already knowing that Carmilla is a vampire, which is pretty impossible to miss as a modern reader. Luckily, this is a short book, and still well worth the read even with that caveat.

Danika reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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This October I decided that I wanted to devote some time to Halloween reads. My top pick was a lesbian vampire classic (no, not that one), The Gilda Stories. It’s not the first lesbian vampire book I’ve read, but this one stands out for being neither horror nor erotica. It follows a vampire from just before her change, when she is escaping from slavery, to two centuries afterwards (yes, to 2050). It is almost like a collection of short stories, each set a decade or two after the previous one. I found this a fascinating structure, because for one thing, it really imagines the scope of being immortal. You get an idea of how many different cities and time periods she’s lived in and adapted to, in a way that a one-off sentence about being centuries old just can’t encapsulate. It also is just as much a history of racism and slavery in the United States, with Gilda noting the patterns that emerge through time, and her attempts to be involved in progressive change.

Another thing I appreciated about The Gilda Stories was the vampire mythology. As I said, this isn’t a horror book. Vampires in this novel need to feed on human blood, but it’s ideally not a violent act. Gilda and her family have a strict moral code, involving giving something to everyone they feed on. Vampires are able to manipulate people’s thoughts, and Gilda and her ilk read what a person needs (comfort, decisiveness, hope, etc), and leave that with them. They also heal the wounds they cause, making it, in their opinion, an even exchange. In addition to being able to influence thoughts, these vampires also have super strength and, obviously, are immortal. In the “noble” vampire sense, they remind me of more current-day vampire mythology, who aside from brooding and not dying, don’t differ much from humans. On the other hand, they have to carry around earth from their birthplace, a tradition most modern vampire stories drop. (They weave it into hems of clothing and into their shoes, and sleep on a pallet of it.) This helps protect against indirect sunlight and being around bodies of water, though both can still weaken them. And yes, they sleep in the day.

I really loved this book. The writing is great, the characters are so interesting, and I loved this queer, black take on the vampire story. It’s definitely neither horror nor erotica, and Gilda’s lesbianism is basically a non-issue, but also not brushed over. If you’re looking for a different take on the vampire, definitely pick up The Gilda Stories, even if you’re not usually the “scary story” type!

Alyssa reviews Night Weaver by Madeleine Lycka

Night Weaver by Madeleine Lycka is an erotic vampire romance that centers around three vampire women. Two of them, Isabel and Ankit, have been undead for hundreds of years, and the third, Arrow, has just been turned into a vampire by Ankit. The story revolves around romance, art, sex, jealousy, and some minor politicking. Overall, I enjoyed Night Weaver. Although it suffers from some flaws and a lack of polishing, it is enjoyable, with hot sex scenes, well choreographed action scenes, solid characters, and a pleasing conclusion.

Like many independently published novels, Night Weaver is unpolished: it contains typos, a few confusing scene breaks, and at least one extraneous sex scene. Additionally, while the ending is satisfying in terms of content and loose ends, it feels abrupt and like it ought to have been fleshed out more. Despite these issues, I enjoyed reading Night Weaver. The story and characters are strong and well developed, and the characters’ internal universes—Ankit’s and Arrow’s both center around making art—are interesting to explore. The erotic scenes are also fun to read. Isabel, Ankit, and Arrow, the three vampire women, form a love triangle: Isabel and Ankit were together for a long time, but no longer, and Ankit and Arrow begin to fall in love, which enrages Isabel, who also happens to be queen of the vampires. Ankit is a painter and tattoo artist, and Arrow weaves tapestries; they are drawn together by their similar artist souls.

For vampire lore connoisseurs: these vampires have limited qualms when it comes to feeding on the blood of living humans. The protagonists in Night Weaver often kill to eat and rarely feel guilt over these actions. The origin of vampires is not explored in this setting, and some of the typical lore is ignored. These are nocturnal vampires who will burn in the sun, and can be killed only by sunlight or very violent physical trauma. We see Arrow work on one or two occasions to control her “beast,” but the vampires in Night Weaver are generally in control of themselves, and the only drawbacks to immortality seem to be night living, loss of human food, and occasionally deadly politics.

Ultimately, I would recommend checking out this book—it’s only four bucks for the electronic version on Amazon, and free to borrow if you have Prime—especially if you’re looking for vampires or vampire erotica in your lesbian fiction, or just some erotic, somewhat kinky, romance punctuated by action and high stakes.

Islay reviews Raven Mask by Winter Pennington

Raven Mask is the second in Winter Pennington’s series featuring the adventures of ‘preternatural investigator’ werewolf Kassandra Lyall, and I would most certainly recommend reading the first before the second as Raven Mask picks up fairly seamlessly from where the first novel leaves off. It is, however, an enjoyable romp told with flare and good humour and scattered with a decent number of extremely intense sex scenes which should keep any lover of Sapphic fantasy fiction very happy.

The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and if it occasionally feels somewhat disjointed it’s more than made up for by their being a juicy love scene within the first couple of chapters to wet the reader’s appetite for what’s to come. This is the first of several love scenes between Kassandra and her vampire lover Lenorre scattered throughout the novel, which all manage to be both erotic and entertaining without overcrowding the plot. It’s somewhat unfortunate that here in Britain ‘Lenore’ is actually the name of a leading brand of fabric softener and couldn’t be less vampiric sounding if it tried – but I’m prepared to forgive Pennington that given that this book was clearly written with an American audience in mind.

Kassandra Lyall is a likeable, sympathetic and frequently funny heroine, and Pennington sets her up well amongst a brace of other quirky, intriguing characters – I developed a particular soft spot for the Beta werewolf Rosalin. The cast of vampires, however, feel a little over-egged: I for one think we’ve really moved past the point where blood suckers must all be faux-Gothic cartoons who dress like bastardised Victorians and speaks with British accents. We now live in the age of True Blood and Being Human, after all, and those shows have been so successful at re-popularising vampire fiction because they resist the Anne Rice style of vamp that permeated 80s and 90s cult lit. Pennington might be a little more successful at getting me to take her vampire characters seriously if she wrote them in a style that didn’t feel so dated.

However, I can’t be completely sure she isn’t doing so with a wink and a nod anyway – her tone is characterised by a slightly tongue-in-cheek mischievousness which shows most clearly in Kassandra’s wry wit and commentary on outrageousness of the situations she gets into. Pennington can just about get away with pantomime vampires where a less skilled author wouldn’t, because her narrative voice is so appealing.

Kassandra does occasionally stray into feeling like an insert for Pennington herself, however. Not only is she a gutsy lesbian werewolf, but a Celtic pagan witch with a particular affinity with ravens. This would be fine if the fact of her being a witch had any bearing on the plot whatsoever – but it doesn’t, and left me wondering why such a detail kept being shoe-horned in. Being a Hellenic polytheist myself I wont criticise the respectful inclusion of a Pagan belief system – neo-Pagans are sorely lacking representation in any kind of popular literature – but it does feel somewhat convenient that Pennington’s blurb mentions that she too is a pagan on a Celtic path with a great fondness for ravens and crows. No author separates themselves from their characters entirely, nor should they have to, but the tongue-in-cheek style which allows Pennington to get away with her vampires is missing from her descriptions of Kassandra’s spirituality and that leaves those sections feeling a little forced and out of place. She doesn’t need to be a witch on top of everything else – there’s no benefit to the narrative – and as such Kassandra being a Celtic pagan feels self-indulgent and jars the reader somewhat.

That being said Kassandra remains an appealing narrator and Raven Mask an entertaining novel – highly recommended to anyone looking for a sexy, funny, escapist bit of fluff to bury themselves in for an afternoon.