Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria MachadoThe act of interacting with text—that is to say, of reading—is that of inserting one’s self into what is static and unchanging so that it might pump with fresh blood. Having read this introduction, I hope you will enter into Carmilla thusly, using your fingertips and mouth and mind to locate the lacunae where LeFanu excised pieces of Veronika’s account, the hallways haunted by the specters of truth and phantom of passion. See if you cannot perceive what exists below: the erotic relationship of two high-strung and lonely young women. The shared metropolis of their dreaming. An aborted picnic in the ruins.

This isn’t my first encounter with Carmilla. I’ve read it twice before, and, of course, seen the web series and their movie (in theatre). I have a complicated relationship with this text, which I will get into later, but suffice to say I am repulsed and attracted—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. So, when I found out that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing an edition, I needed to get my hands on it. Machado wrote Her Body and Other Parties, which is an incredible short story collection. This review will by mostly about Machado’s edition as a distinct work, but if you’d like to read my thoughts about Carmilla in general, here is my original review.

After I received a review copy of this edition, I started to wonder how different a change in editor would really make it. I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. Carmilla was originally published as a serial in a magazine. After that, his short stories were collected, with an added introduction which claimed that the story was gleaned from a Doctor Hesselius’s collection of letters. Machado adds another layer on top of this, claiming that the actual letters were discovered hidden in Le Fanu’s property, and that he had not only stolen this story and claimed it as his own, but had also censored it. She creates a meta narrative around the work, which leads us to imagine that Carmilla was published in a world where vampires do exist.

Through her introduction, she makes the queer subtext (already hard to deny) text. In the discovered letters, the real Laura (Veronika) describes her undisguised desire for the real Carmilla. This casts doubt on Le Fanu as a narrator, showing him as a biased perspective. He is made unimportant, an impediment to understanding the story and the character, instead of a creator. Machado’s introduction claims that she hasn’t restored the edition to the “original letters” because she hopes that more will be discovered, and also because she wanted Le Fanu to be recognized in his inadequacy and shame. What a brilliant reclamation of this story, which centres the women and their relationship. Instead of seeing a queer reading as violating the intent of the author or bringing a modern lens, it imagines the story as being previously misinterpreted through a heteronormative view. It’s brilliant.

Of course, there’s more to this book than just the introduction. There are footnotes, but they are only occasional. There are a handful of factual footnotes, mostly indicating place names that no longer exist. And then there are a precious handful of footnotes that add a whole new dimension to the text. One footnote casually relays the life story of a character who only shows up for a few pages. After Laura glances at the woods, a footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” And the ultimate footnote, of course, which simply reads: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.” It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. As wonderful as it is to read a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula, it is openly hostile to queer readers. This edition, instead, centres a queer narrative. In the introduction, she excerpts from Veronika’s discovered letters, where she says she dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine,” and follows it with “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.” In this story, the male characters are executing Laura’s lover while claiming to be protecting her. Machado compares her to Elizabeth Báthory: monster, or victim of misogynistic smear campaign?

There are also a few beautiful and detailed illustrations by Robert Kraiza, including a sexy illustration of Carmilla and Laura’s embrace. Like Machado’s footnotes, I savored each one, but I was also greedy for more of them. One of the things that I noticed about the original story this time around was the lore. I like reading early vampire or zombie stories, because the rules and associations around them have changed over time. In Carmilla, vampires must return to their graves to sleep at least a few hours every day. (They also seem to be able to walk through walls and get into and out of their graves without disturbing the soil.) When they unearth Carmilla in her coffin, she is partially submerged in blood, which is such a creepy image that I’m surprised it hasn’t survived. I also noticed this time that Le Fanu’s text describes the vampire, after finding a suitable victim, to engage in a kind of courtship which resembles the passion of love. He says that they yearn for something like consent or sympathy. Carmilla is not treated entirely sympathetically in the original text, but this definitely leaves the door open for more generous interpretations.

Finally, I found myself ruminating about why queer people so often love monsters, villains, vampires. I think that Laura’s mix of fear and shame and attraction is such an uncomfortable reflection of some of our first experiences with queer desire—before, maybe, we even knew enough to name it. That monstrous, beautiful future that could be glimpsed in it. Laura’s feeling of being both drawn to Carmilla and feeling “something of repulsion” can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. In fact, so heteronormative is Laura that she wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive a romance. She is so undone by this queer courtship that she says “I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.” Outside of (or alongside) compulsory heterosexuality, I started to think of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as being a representation of toxic relationships—love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. Initially unaccountably pleasurable, fascinating, and then mixed with the horrible, resulting in Laura’s increased lassitude, melancholy, and thoughts of death. This could easily be reimagined as a canon relationship, but an unhealthy and even abusive one.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to this story for the same reason that I keep coming back to lesbian pulp. Because I think that it’s crucial to not only have a queer present and future, but also to reclaim our past. And those narratives have been hidden, and when they’re not hidden, they’re hostile. But I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman throughout time, and it’s for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately. Carmen Maria Machado seems to know why I read Carmilla, and created a pathway through this story that does most of the work for queer readers. This is a profoundly different experience from reading Le Fanu in isolation. Machado’s edition has made me think more deeply about this story, and has made me feel like a welcome reader to it, which is not an easy thing to do with a text that frames people like me as monsters. I will cut off this sprawling essay here, since I feel like I’m approaching the length of the novella, but I hope that if you have read Carmilla, you re-read it in this edition, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself to this little-changed but much-improved version.

Babusha reviews the Kate Kane series by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Look, the books I’m talking about here were released at a time when –

  1. I thought I was straight
  2. I thought Twilight was the epitome of vampire romance.

So after four years of going through some intense self-reflection and some brief boycotting of vampires altogether, I realised that I still loved vampires–I just like them as lesbians now.

Which is when I found these books.

The Kate Kane series is literally my go-to comfort read, next to the Whyborne and Griffin series. I mean, a wisecracking lesbian detective with a sense of dark gallows humor that made me emote and laugh my ass off, annoying whiny emo stalker ex-boyfriends who give me a sense of teenage romance lit catharsis, motherfucking hot vampire princes and interactions ranging from awkward to near “sex against a wall” with faery ex-girlfriends, werewolves and Tash the Teetotaler Lesbian: how could I not love this series?

I didn’t think I’d be reviewing this, because I really wanted more and was super bummed there wasn’t, but when Alexis Hall announced he’s going to be writing more of this series, I had to gush about this for a bit.

So this series is darkly funny supernatural detective stories following half-faery half-human, noir  detective stereotype but gay Kate “Katharine” Kane. The book starts with her being hired to investigate a werewolf death outside a club owned by the “Prince of Cups” Julian Saint Germain before &%$& starts getting real between the werewolves and the vampires.

Julian is hot, flirty, and super interested in Kate. The only thing is, Kate has issues with vampires because of said dickhead creeper ex-boyfriend from high school who’s still leaving her portraits on her pillow–because you know… a good guy does that, not his literal evil soulless alter ego.

(Gold star for everyone who gets this reference and for people following AH’s twitter thread of Giles lust!)

With scary dodgy powers she draws on from her scary morally dodgy mom, the Queen of the Wild Hunt, dealing with the guilt and regret of the death of her partner and sometimes epically bad shagging choices while dealing with vampire politics, werewolf supermodels and even Witch Queens to investigate her case, Kate is the epitome of Disaster Lesbian and really shouldn’t be dating hot sylph-like vampires but oh look wait now she’s eating meringue with her.

Professional pride is very overrated, I agree.

The book is so freaking funny and hot with a distinct kind of British “we might as well all die now” humor with Kate and Julian’s push and pull dynamic, funny as all hell running gags of Kate’s constant imagining of her gravestone with inscriptions describing increasingly embarrassing, hot and mundane ways she could die during her investigation and “fucking Patrick” getting punched a lot which made me laugh and yay in my heart of hearts. The next book just gets weirder and hotter, where she is not only trying to do her day job, but also has to deal with some faces from the past, hot sex, strange new roommates, other people’s girlfriends, literal trials and occasional tales of the Pudding Nun’s various adventures.

I have a weird sense of what’s comforting, but it’s any book that makes me laugh so much and yet it also helped me confront my vague sense of shame I felt being super into something that is decidedly problematic as a teenager. I had liked Twilight as a kid, and yes, I was a dumbass teenager, but just because it’s making a comeback on the internet, don’t mean I have to be ashamed and avoid it like it was the plague, just punch it and get on with my day.

It was just a phase after all, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be out looking for my own motherfucking vampire prince now!

Definite four and a half stars, the half for the catharsis.

Content warnings: blood, knifeplay in sex, possessive creepy behaviour from dickhead ex-boyfriends, near alcoholism, light gruesomeness

Mary Springer reviews Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Malice, known as Mary Alice to her family, is a trained hunter for paranormal creatures. Ruri is the beta werewolf of her pack, has been around for a couple of centuries, and is not a werewolf to be trifled with. Both their lives are shaken when Ruri’s pack is taken over by a violent, loner Alpha and Malice’s sister Cassidy is caught in the crossfire. She and Ruri are thrown together by forces of fate, and while they should hate each other, they can’t help be drawn to one another.

This was a great book! I love werewolves, so I was already on board, but this went beyond my expectations. I really appreciate some good, old fashioned angst, and this not only served the angst but also offered up seconds.

I love the characters! Malice was wonderfully stoic, putting on the airs of a cold and brutal hunter, while having this secret need for intimacy she won’t even admit to herself. Ruri was also great, a tough and formidable werewolf (or wolven as the characters in the book choose to be called) with a soft inside. There were also the other werewolves, hunters, and some intense vampires, as well as Cassidy. She takes a big role in the book and it was also interesting to see her character develop and change alongside Malice and Ruri.

The romance was perfect. Malice and Ruri have such great chemistry, but beyond that I was able to get a sense that these are two people who need each other and work well with one another. They’re both just as similar as they are different. I enjoyed watching their relationship slowly grow through the novel.

My one gripe about this was how the romance was resolved. It felt a bit rushed in the end and I was hoping for just a little more angst, conversation, and action. But I was still satisfied with where things ended up.

The overall plot about the violent Alpha and the world building as a whole really came alive for me. With some paranormal romances, I can get a bit bored with the villain and exposition, but MacTague did a great job creating a plot and world that drew me in. I would love to see more books set in this world even if they didn’t include these specific characters (but I’d really, really love to see more of these characters).

In the end, I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a great paranormal romance. This also works really well in the enemies-to-lovers subgenre, which I’m always a fan of.

Mary Springer reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This review contains spoilers.

Given that this was written in 1872 by a presumably heterosexual cisgender man, I was not expecting a happy ending. This is the story of a lesbian vampire preying on an innocent young woman and being killed by said young woman’s father and her father’s friends (yes, all men). This isn’t a particularly feel-good type of lesbian literature, and it’s not even particularly well written.

So, why did I read it? Well, I enjoyed the YouTube web series modern adaption of Carmilla, which does have a happy ending for the lovers and doesn’t bury the gay. So, I wanted to see where it came from and it was interesting to see how they adapted the characters. Instead of an old castle, she lives in a dorm room. The main character, Laura, had a nurse and tutor who in the YouTube series were adapted into the RA’s for her dorm.

I also wanted to be more aware and knowledgeable of literature that includes women who are attracted to other women, in relationships with women. Not only did this count towards that, but it is a somewhat well-known part of lesbian novel history (no matter how terrible it is for representation).

Those were the reasons I went into it and I wasn’t planning on getting too involved, as I was also expecting to be bored by the old writing style. However, I quickly found myself engaged and interested in the plot and the characters. I actually did enjoy the story and was hoping (despite already knowing the ending) it would turn out at least semi-okay for the characters in the end.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it if you want to see where the Carmilla webseries comes from, or just to read an early lesbian vampire novel. However, you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.

Alexa reviews Into the Mystic Volume 3 by NineStar Press

Her ghost had once told Clotho that no proper ghost story has a happy ending, because ghosts don’t end. 

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for fantasy, paranormal and fairytales, so of course I had to pick up an anthology that has nine F/F stories with paranormal elements. While the stories had the paranormal and the sapphic main characters in common, there was a great variety in paranormal creatures, writing style, and my feelings towards them as well.

Some of the stories were truly creative gems with unexpected and rarely seen ideas: the opening story, It Started Before Noon by Ava Kelly is in itself about ideas that are made into stories. The main character is a muse who grows story inspiration in a garden like flowers, but she just can’t get the romance buds right. I loved the little details, like how the different types of stories (comedy, angst, etc.) had different flowers and needed different kinds of care. Swoon by Artemis Savory had siren-like creatures acting like pirates whom I would have loved to learn more about. I loved the myth surrounding these sisters, but I still had so many questions – I would love to read a full length novel with them.

Other stories took more often used concepts or species, but still had the kind of magic that makes them an easy 5-star read. Home by K. Parr centers a wolf pack made up entirely of women, and a college student who is accepted into the pack (and the family) after getting close to the pack’s Alpha. I loved that this story had an older love interest, and I loved the description of the pack dynamics as well. The Hunt by M. Hollis is about a young vampire forever stuck as a teenager who has been adopted by a lesbian vampire couple. On her first hunt, she meets a human girl, and she finds herself wanting to meet her again. I felt like this story ended a little too soon, I would have loved to read more. And By Candlelight by Ziggy Schutz was one of my favourite stories in the anthology: I admit that I still don’t really understand the logic of it, and yet the two main characters and their relationship was so endearing that it absolutely stole my heart.

Vampires and werewolves seemed to be a popular choice for this anthology, and yet each story had some kind of unique spin on it. My Cup of O Pos by L. J. Hamlin has a disabled vampire with Ehlers-Danlos syndmore (ownvoices!) who goes out on a date with the cute human nurse from the ER who treats her with respect and compassion. This story also takes place in a world where vampires are common knowledge and there are laws about what they can and cannot do, and it uses this fictional/fantasy marginalisation to address real-life marginalisations and their intersections as well. Dance With Me by Michelle Frost is a romance between a werewolf and a vampire that left me with many burning questions about the backgrounds of the characters, wishing that there was a longer story to read.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of stories that caught me off guard and I didn’t end up enjoying them much. I am used to most non-YA lesfic I read having at least some kind of sexual content (My Cup Of O Pos has sex scenes as well, and yet I felt like I got to know the characters), but Heart’s Thaw by Bru Baker and Fire and Brine by Lis Valentine were both mostly erotica with very little plot or characterisation. While I liked the original idea in Heart’s Thaw and the twist in Fire and Brine, I felt like I barely got to know anything about the characters, other than the sex scene that takes up half of such a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology and I found some true gems in it, but I do wish that the blurb or tags made the sexual content of books clearer. It was especially off-putting because most of the stories didn’t have any sex at all, so having two stories that were purely erotica just didn’t seem to fit in well with the others.

Rating: 4 stars

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Cara reviews Ex-Wives of Dracula by Georgette Kaplan

ex wives of dracula

This is one of the best lesbian vampire books I’ve ever read. While not without its flaws, it stands out for the development of its two protagonists, its prose, its humor, and its well-developed setting.

Mindy and Lucia start off by rekindling their childhood friendship on Mindy’s pizza routes, in the easy way that friendships develop when you’re that age and don’t need to make plans to spend time with people. While the characters are in high school, though, Ex-Wives of Dracula doesn’t feel at all like a young-adult book, rather more like a classic bildungsroman, colored with an adult perspective on being young. Soon, Mindy confesses that she’s been questioning if she’s gay to Lucia. Mindy’s doubts feel real. To me it’s obvious she’s into girls, but it’s exactly the same way my sexuality was a riddle to my high-school self yet so obvious in hindsight. Then, Lucia breaks up with her boyfriend. Then, Lucia kisses Mindy. Then, she gets back together with her boyfriend. Then, she gets turned into a vampire.

Lucia’s hot-and-cold, off-and-on affections should be familiar to any queer woman who’s had her heart broken by a straight girl. Lucia’s not so straight, though, and the clues are there from the start.

“I really tried with him,” Lucia said. Her voice wasn’t rattling with
emotion any more, it was just quiet. Which was even worse. “I really
thought I was a good girlfriend. I was gonna—wash his clothes and fix
him pies and shit. I would’ve done anything to be a good girlfriend.”

“You were a great girlfriend,” Mindy assured her. “He’s just an
idiot. He’s an idiot who never even got to know you well enough to
know what he’s gonna be missing. He’s gonna be big and fat at the high
school reunion, and you’re going to be super-hot and married to a
senator. He won’t even know why he let you get away.”

“I did anal!” Lucia cried to the florescent lights. “What more is a
girl supposed to do, huh?”

We learn, though, that Lucia’s ambiguity has at least as much to do with her feeling inferior to Mindy—dumber and poorer—as it does with internalized homophobia. She hurts Mindy not because she’s deliberately toying with her, but because she doesn’t know how to deal with a relationship on top of her family’s dysfunction and her own uncertainties about her future.

Mindy works out much faster that she likes girls and is more together, but she’s flawed too. When Lucia confesses that the reason she doesn’t want to drink Mindy’s blood is because she’ll lose control, Mindy convinces her otherwise, then hypocritically blames Lucia when, later in the book, she does lose control. Mindy is also certain that Lucia is wrong about something that Lucia is right about, with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

The dialog is often hilarious, and moments of humor mark the rest of the book too. It veers from the absurd, like Lucia going through Mindy’s list of bad tippers to find people to feed on, to the silly, like when Mindy disinvites Lucia to pretend to be hitting her with a hadouken, to the dark: This is why communication is so important, she said to Lucia. Imagine, thinking I had something against murderous rampages… Kaplan uses the humor well to contrast the serious and sometimes horrific elements in the rest of the novel.

Kaplan writes a lot of great descriptions, and some of the best come in the horror scenes. When Lucia confronts the vampire the first time:

He pulled. She bit. The skin gave and his blood flooded her mouth. It
wasn’t warm, it wasn’t salty. It was cold and thick, knotted like old
cough syrup. She wouldn’t release her hold on him to spit it out. She
swallowed and felt it all the way down her esophagus, cold and
heavy. It sat in the pit of her stomach like she’d eaten dry ice.

When Lucia shows up at Mindy’s house afterward:

Out in the hallway, she gasped so hard she nearly dropped the
tray. The footprints Mindy had so assiduously cleaned up, with Swiffer
mops and Resolve Spot & Stain, were still there in ghostly
form. They’d metastasized into mushrooms with long, slender stalks and
caps the size of tennis balls, with small siblings alongside them. The
patches of fungus went up the stairs. One for each step Lucia had
taken.

One of my complaints about lesbian genre literature in general is that the prose is often not good, and I love to find novels that I enjoy reading just for the writing.

Her descriptions capture suburban Texas well, and the football-obsessed high school and town surrounding reminded me of the town I lived in in high school. [Spoilers next] The idea that one of those towns would welcome a vampire, as long as he was a good football coach, is scarily plausible to me. I also liked the way that Kaplan wove real-life life horror, an adult man who obsesses over a teenaged girl and interprets her actions as romantic love, into the character of the vampire; and that when Lucia revealed vampire existence to use it against the vampire who turned her, and the rest of the novel didn’t ignore this like it never happened.

One modern vampire trope in this novel that bugs me is vampires that can cross miles in seconds, with no mention of sonic booms or problems with ground shattering beneath their feet. (I think Twilight popularized this trope, but I don’t think it originated there.) Two other flaws are spoilers.

 

 

 

Spoilers

Seb starts off as comic relief, a FunnyForeigner from Romania. This is always a fraught trope, and I have mixed feelings about how Kaplan uses it here. Later, he’s arguably StuffedInTheFridge to make Mindy surrender herself to the vampire. The reason I say “arguably” is because, at least in my interpretation of the trope, one of its key properties is the lack of agency in the character’s death. Without this, it’s too easy to call every character death an example, because a death without any impact on any character isn’t going to have an impact on the reader, either. Seb puts himself in danger to save Mindy, so he has agency in his own death. Another point is that killing off a straight male character to motivate a not-straight female character doesn’t have the same baggage as the reverse. That said, this all is enough to trouble me, so I’d call it a flaw.

I also wish the ending had shown a little more of Mindy and Lucia’s future together, to indicate that maybe a two-vampire relationship would work out and that they could find some sort of happiness together. That is, however, a quibble. There’s not much more serious commitment than what Mindy does for Lucia, after all.

 

 

Danika reviews Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon

betteroffred

 

I don’t read a lot of romance or erotica, but I figured that this month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I would give the genre another shot. I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this one: vampire sorority sisters? I’m in. And for the most part, this is exactly the kind of smutty, light read I was looking for. I would say this leans more to the erotica side of things, because there is usually sex every couple of pages.

Part of the reason that I enjoyed this more than I was expecting was the voice. I liked the little bits of humor thrown in to Ginger’s inner monologue, like her musing that “Maybe it was the right moment to tell Amy I was seventy-seven percent sure I was a lesbian.” I also felt like the characters were strong and compelling, including many of the side characters. I’m really looking forward to the sequel that focuses on Cleo (and Benny), because she was my favourite supporting character. There is also quite a bit of racial diversity in the supporting characters, which I appreciated, and it was interesting to see how all these different personalities dealt with the same unusual situation.

I also was somewhat unfairly influenced because I have been watching Mark Reads Fifty Shades of Grey, and that book sets a spectacularly low bar. But especially in contrast to that experience, I really liked the dynamic between Ginger and Camila. (Yes, the lesbian vampire love interest is named Camila. I appreciated the nod to the classic lesbian vampire story.) Camila is a vampire and has significantly more power and influence than Ginger, but they still manage to have what I considered a healthy relationship. There is a push and pull between them, but Ginger feels capable of setting limits and they both communicate honestly. I can definitely see what Ginger gets out of the relationship. (And despite the plethora of sex scenes, they didn’t get too repetitive.)

My only real problem with the book was the plot. For one thing, if I discovered that hell, demons, and God were all real, I would have some follow-up questions no matter how distracting by hot new vampire girlfriend was, but Ginger doesn’t seem curious at all about the details of this. The plot moves fairly slowly through most of the book, but I was enjoying being immersed in the world and in Ginger and Camila’s relationship. The end of the book, however, packs a lot into a short space, and it felt rushed to me. I would have liked to see it more evenly plotted throughout the book, but overall I really enjoyed this and will definitely be picking up the sequel.

Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

carmilla

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.

Krait reviews Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon

betteroffred

Ginger’s goal as a college freshman is to maintain her 4.0 GPA without being driven batty by her roommate Amy’s obsession with Greek life. But when she agrees to look at them to get Amy off her back, she can’t take her mind off the gorgeous girls of Alpha Beta Omega. Somehow, she finds herself invited to their secret initiation ritual, and that’s when things get weird. Everyone expects odd mystic rituals from a fraternity or sorority, but ABO is hiding blood-bonds and vampire queens. What’s Ginger to do when her secret crush turns out to be the top vamp?

I really wanted to love this book going in: with sororities, secret vampires, lesbian erotica, how could it go wrong? But while it had some great moments, I think the book suffers from a major lack of conflict past about the first third. Ginger drives herself mad over Camila, insisting to herself that there’s no way vamp-queen Camila could have feelings for her. Normally, I wouldn’t blink at that – mysterious motives of a love interest are a tried-and-true story element. The problem is, as the reader, it was pretty damn clear after about the second round of sex that Camila is deeply, unreservedly into Ginger, so Ginger’s cluelessness didn’t reflect terribly well on her. However, minus the emotional whirlwind, Ginger is relatable and funny, and gets in some good mental quips.

Between the current sorority sisters, the vampire-queens, and the new pledges, the book establishes a fairly diverse cast of ladies. But because we meet them through Ginger’s first-person perspective, there’s a lot of objectifying language used to describe their introduction. I was a little uncomfortable with the focus on their exotic beauty, and I don’t feel like we ever get great character development for the other sister-queens (as the book calls them). But thankfully, after the first introductions, the other sorority sisters are fleshed out enough that their backgrounds aren’t their only signifier.

Overall, if I was giving a grade, I’d give Better Off Red a C+. It’s light on plot and I wish that the vampire mythology had been fleshed out further, but the erotica was well-written, and I don’t regret reading it. Pick this up if the concept grabs you and you don’t mind a focus on sex.

Danika reviews Dark Angels: Lesbian Vampire Erotica edited by Pam Keesey

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This was another (in addition to The Haunting of Hill House) book I intended to read in October, but didn’t come in to the library for me until November, so I’m extending my Halloween reads! When I went to pick it up, I was surprised to see that it was billed as erotica: I didn’t think I had requested any erotica. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that it’s because originally the book’s tagline was lesbian vampire stories, and was changed to “erotica” in the new edition. Knowing that made the collection make more sense. Although there is a lot of sex in Dark Angels, I wouldn’t exactly call it erotica. The introduction especially takes the subject matter pretty seriously, discussing themes of vampirism and goddesses, dark angels, Lilith, etc. Although some of the stories pretty quickly just get into sex scenes with fangs, others are without sex–including “Bloody Countess”, which is just a long description of various tortures Erzsebet (Elizabeth)Bathory performed on girls.

I have read and own Pam Keesey’s previous lesbian vampire collection, Daughters of Darkness, and I really enjoyed that one. The introduction to Dark Angels explains that while its predecessor was lesbian stories with vampire themes, this collection is vampire stories with lesbian themes. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t enjoy Dark Angels as much as the first collection. There are some stories that I really liked, especially the writing of “Presence” and “Cinnamon Roses”, and the intrigue of “Blood Wedding”, and I did enjoy the explicitly-queer-for-Victorian-times story (“The Countess Visonti”). Overall, though, the erotica stories weren’t particularly titillating to me, and the more literary stories weren’t as memorable as I’d like. (Unlike Daughters of Darkness‘s lesbian-vampire-in-space story!)

Perhaps predictably–we all know the lesbian vampires joke–there is also a lot of menstruation in this collection. Which makes sense, and was something I’d appreciate being addressed in one of the stories, or a few, but the frequent returns to the subject were a little much for me. I was also bothered by the “Tale of Christina” positing lesbian sex as fundamentally incomplete/unfulfilling. Also, “The Bloody Countess” is the longest story in the collection and is second to last. The list of (supposedly real-life) tortures that ran on for 16 pages kind of turned my stomach, and seemed a little weird in the context of “erotica” stories. I also felt like the introduction dragged on for me, especially considering that it didn’t really seem to match the tone of the stories included. As you can probably tell, I wouldn’t recommend this collection. Try Daughters of Darkness instead.