Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home: Carmen Maria Machado’s Reclamation of CARMILLA

Carmilla: Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home graphic

Carmilla is a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula by decades. It’s a story I’ve come back to over and over, in the same conflicted way that I am drawn to lesbian pulp. In fact, I wrote a post about queer culture’s tendency to reclaim toxic representation, and how Carmilla and lesbian pulp fits into that. On the one hand, it’s validating to read about queer characters in classic literature, when our presence has been erased from much of history. On the other, Carmilla is literally a monster. I vividly remember my university Gender Studies class about Monstrous Women, and how the pinnacle of this is the lesbian vampire who lurks in the shadows, ready to pounce on innocent women and violently convert them.

Carmilla is a complex character, though. She’s in some ways pitiable and even relatable. She also seems to love Laura in some way, and their relationship is passionate, if veiled and macabre. I’m not the only queer woman drawn to this flawed but compelling character: it’s been adapted into a YouTube series (with canonically queer characters, including a nonbinary side character) that became popular enough to get its own movie and book adaptations.

I’ve always felt conflicted reading Carmilla, though, because while I could reclaim the character, it was with the knowledge that the author and story was painting her as monstrous—and that her sexuality was just an expression of this villainy. I was both repulsed by and attracted to this story—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. When I discovered that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing a new edition, I was eager to get my hands on it. I couldn’t imagine that an introduction and new editor could make a huge difference, but if anyone could reclaim this queer narrative, Machado could: the same person who wrote, “I think a lot about queer villains, the problem and pleasure and audacity of them” (In the Dream House).

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What's your favourite vampires book? 🌼 Hello, be(e)loveds! 💛 How're you all doing? First off, I'd like to recommend you one of my latest readings: 'Carmilla' by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. If you like gothic stories and you haven't tried it yet, I encourage you to pick it up as soon as possible. The writing style is absolutely flawless; you won't have any difficulty, I assure you. Besides, the story is as alluring and sensual as a classic vampire story can be. Personally, as a fan of Dracula, I'm so enthusiast that I discovered this book 🖤 Finally, a quick life update; I think that from now on I'll manage to post daily again (yeeey!). I had to simplify my style, since the next few months will be extremely hectic. However, I hope you'll like my contents anyway. I can't wait to read your comments. Have a wonderful day! 🌼 #tumblesoverbooks – I am reading this next 🌼 #gothandliterature – Big reveal 🌼 #bookstagram #instabooks #igreads #bookishlovegroup #bookworm #booknerd #bibliophile #bookslover #books📚 #libri #booksphotography #bookcover #carmilla #vampire #dracula #epicreads #gothic #bookatagrammer #beebooks #booksaddict #trees #booksmakemehappy #vampiri #mythicalcreatures #classics #literature #booksbooksbooks #bookishlove

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I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. This edition rewrites the entire narrative of Carmilla while keeping the vast majority of the text exactly the same. Originally, Le Fanu published the chapters serially in a magazine, then later bound them together with an introduction which claimed that the story came from Doctor Hesselius’s notes. Machado adds another layer. She claims that Le Fanu pulled this story from stolen letters, disguising and censoring the women’s story. Machado claims that the real letters from Veronika (“Laura”) were explicit about her and Carmilla’s romantic and sexual relationship.

In this version, it isn’t queer women who are trying to alter the author’s intention in order to claim Carmilla. Instead, it’s Le Fanu whose heteronormativity has obscured the real story, which can now be unearthed in its true form. This edition also adds a few footnotes and illustrations, though I desperately wanted there to be more of both. The meta-narrative that Machado creates is one in which vampires do exist—and that’s not all. In one footnote, Laura lingers outside of the woods, and the 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…” (Another footnote, after a lengthy description, succinctly states, “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.”) And Robert Kraiza’s illustrations are beautiful and compelling.

It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. It was always interesting to read this classic lesbian text, but it was through the lens of heterosexism. Having a queer author shape this story makes it feel entirely new—not a guilty pleasure, but a triumphant one. Machado brings Carmilla and Laura into the fold. In this version, Laura watches in horror as her male supposed protectors execute her lover in front of her, claiming it is for her safety. Veronika dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine.” Veronika writes, “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.”

Unfortunately, shame, guilt, and fear intermingling with desire is still a common feeling for many queer people, especially when they are first exploring their sexuality. Laura is drawn to Carmilla at the same time that she feels “something of repulsion,” which can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. Laura even wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive of romance. Under Machado’s framing, instead of being horrific, Laura and Carmilla’s relationship seems somewhat familiar. Unhealthy, sure, and conflicted—but not inhuman.

After reading this book, I was filled with pride for how queer readers throughout time have reclaimed and reshaped the narratives meant to destroy us:

I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman in literature throughout time, 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.

I finished that book knowing that Machado understood why I kept reading Carmilla, and she had created a version more hospitable to readers like me. Instead of feeling like I was fighting through the text, I was guided through it with a sympathetic hand. The lesbian vampire has long been the cruel caricature of queer women, a weapon used to portray all desire between women as pathological and even violent. Machado has taken that character, and in the grand tradition of reclaiming queer villains, she has humanized her. After long being the spectre haunting queer representation, Machado has invited Carmilla in, finally bringing the original lesbian vampire home.

This article originally ran on Book Riot.

Ren reviews Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

This novel was a delight. I’m a big fan of Welcome to Night Vale, and so I was over the moon to discover that creator Joseph Fink had written a book about a trucker in search of her missing-presumed-dead wife. I expected dark wit. I expected oddities galore. I expected to laugh. And while I did experience all of those things while reading this book, it quickly revealed itself to be much more than a lighthearted stroll through the Sci-Fi Woods.

Keisha Taylor is looking for her wife, Alice. Alice – as the title suggests – is not dead. She works for an organization that kills mostly-boneless creatures called Thistle Men, who hunt gleefully in the name of Terrible Freedom. Believing that the Thistle Men may use Keisha as a weapon against her, Alice leads Keisha to believe that she’s dead (for her own good, of course). Keisha is pretty mad when she figures this all out.

It’s a cliché to be sure, but the rest of the book is so good, I was able to let it slide.

Keisha meets her first Thistle Man in a diner. He attacks a man in broad daylight, takes a bite out of him, and no one – Keisha aside – seems to find this strange. When she picks up a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia (who has own tragic backstory involving the Thistle Men), the two of them band together to unravel the mystery of the creatures and put an end to them. There is a war going on in plain sight, and only a select few can see it. Androgynous oracles watch from the corners. A shadowy woman whispers in ears and urges acts of violence. The book burns slowly and paints a nightmare of Things That Go Bump in the Night; along the way, it threads in painful themes of entitlement and unfounded hatred that send the reader’s mind sharply back into the worst parts of our present world.

This was a system of violence and laws that protected Thistle from the likes of her, five foot three, a gash down her chest, and a constant fear she wouldn’t recognize a heart attack if it came because it would feel like her panic attacks.

Keisha’s anxiety is another point of note. The story is told mostly through her perspective, and she is honest and frank about the many ways in which her anxiety affects her. She holds conversations with strangers – both dangerous and otherwise – in a manner which appears outwardly calm despite the fact that internally, she’s fighting (fighting to breathe and fighting to stay still and fighting to maintain her grip on the façade of normal). Even the bad guys can’t understand how they can look her in the eye and not see fear. And Keisha’s answer simple.

You’ve got me really wrong, Officer Whatever. I’m always afraid. Life makes me afraid. And if I’m already afraid of life, then what are you?

There are several books – many of them reviewed on this site – to which I owe a debt, because they aided in my unlearning in regards to being queer. They gave me strong, funny women in stable relationships with strong, funny women. They introduced me to the concept of chosen families. And as a child who always found it easiest to relate to fictional characters, I saw people living happy lives and realised queerness was not synonymous with limitation. An ache in my chest eased – an ache I had been carrying for so long, I had no memory of its appearance. It was liberating, and the way Keisha’s anxiety is written in this book is the closest I have come to feeling anything akin to that since.

She considered that anxiety was irrational, and listening to it was like listening to a child. It’s not that they are never right. It’s that the correct info is mixed in with a lot of imaginary things, and, like a child, anxiety can’t tell the difference between the two.

She was always afraid but she did what she needed to do.

Make me more afraid. I’m not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid.

Oftentimes the anxiety hinders her, but in this story of cannibal Thistle Men and government conspiracies and First Evils, there are times when it makes her powerful. Keisha’s anxiety is as much a part of her as her physical body, and she learns it can occasionally be used as a weapon. The ending comes and goes without Keisha’s anxiety being ‘cured,’ for which I am appreciative.

This book is full of twists and turns, and it offers monsters, action, a sprinkling of romance and a great deal of heart.

Danika reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

I found Into the Drowning Deep because I was looking for deep sea fiction. I’ve had an interest in the deep ocean since I was a kid, and I was craving a book to satisfy that itch. Throw in some killer mermaids, and how I could resist giving this one a go? It wasn’t until after I had decided to read it that I found out that has a bi woman main character and a F/F romance! That’s almost unheard of! I almost always find out about queer books online, on queer book blogs, and then seek them out, so it was fun to just stumble on one.

I absolutely loved this book at the beginning. The premise is that seven years ago, the ship Atargatis went to the Mariana Trench to make a mockumentary about mermaids. Unexpectedly, they seemed to find them! Unfortunately, the “mermaids” were deadly, and no one on the ship survived. Only a bit of footage shows what happened to them, and it’s believed to be faked. Now, another ship is being sent to follow up and find out what really happened.

The book begins by gathering up a large cast of characters, who will all be on the ship. Most of them are scientists, researching things that could be helpful in their search. It’s a fairly diverse cast: there are Deaf characters, characters with autism, bisexual characters–but I didn’t notice a lot of racial/ethnic diversity, though I could have missed it. It seemed odd that in a book with so much other diversity, all the main characters were white (the only character of color I noticed was Michi, who is a poacher and possible murderer).

Unfortunately, it did start to drag for me in the middle. Part of that was the many points of view that get cycled between, which I always find exhausting. But it also felt like what was coming was inevitable: they were following the Atargatis’s path. Their security measures weren’t functional. Why wouldn’t the exact same thing happen again?

There’s also a lot of science packed into this book: Grant clearly did a lot of research (though the one thing I googled from the book seemed to be incorrect–deep sea fish exploding when brought to the surface). Most of the characters are scientists, and a lot of the scenes revolve around their research. This was at times fascinating, but could also get a little slow.

Luckily, it picked up again near the end. There’s a lot of high-stakes tension, especially between the two characters I was most invested in (Tory and Olivia–the queer characters, obviously). This does get pretty grisly, so do go in expecting some horror element, but I didn’t find it scary (probably because it did feel so inevitable). Goodreads lists this as #1 in the series, but I’m not sure if that’s because there was a (now out-of-print) novella prequel, or because there are going to be more books in the series. It wraps up satisfactorily, but I’d be happy to pick up a sequel (or the prequel, if it goes back in print!) (Even though, to my disappointment, not much actually happens in the deep sea in this book. Most of it takes place on the ship, on the surface.)