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.

Susan reviews Stranger on Lesbos by Valerie Taylor

strangeronlesbos

Valerie Taylor’s Stranger on Lesbos is an example of classic pulp lesbian fiction. It was published in 1960, at the midpoint of the genre, and it seems like a really tropey example of it!

Frances Ollenfield escaped a childhood of abuse and poverty into a marriage that is slowly becoming more and more loveless as the family’s fortunes improve. When her husband suggests that she go back to university to finish her degree, Frances leaps at the chance – which happens to bring her Mary Baker, Bake to her friends, who soon becomes her lover.

When I say that Stranger on Lesbos a tropey example, I’m not exaggerating; my understanding of lesbian pulps is that the repeating tropes include bar crawling, jail time, and often a dark-haired worldly woman somehow “leading an innocent astray”, and an ending where the lesbian characters must be separate – all of which is present here, in a fast-paced and melodramatic story, as I’d hope a pulp story would be. The story focuses on the conflict between Frances’ love of her husband and son (and her boredom and disappointment with the life they’ve built as her family’s interests move away from her) and her love for Bake (with its excitement and danger, which brings her new friends and experiences, even if they sour for her as well).

The narrative is at times quite distant, which I think is a stylistic choice as it matches fairly well with Frances’ feeling of disconnection from her life and the people around her. However, there are strange time skips, in one case of two years between chapters, which don’t seem to have changed much in the character’s lives except that Frances abandons her degree again in favour of a job and the conflicts in her relationship with Bake to start to bubble through. There are also scenes that revisit Frances’ past in a mining town with her abusive father, and the emotions in those scenes are harrowing and explain a lot about where Frances came from. (I was not kidding about the melodrama!)

I have to admit though that I genuinely rooted for Frances to leave all of her relationships in the dust and walk away from about halfway through. While it’s easy to see why she fell in love with Bake (she is charming and intelligent, and presents herself as very confident and controlled), and Bill, Frances’ husband, clearly had moments where he was sweet and affectionate… None of Frances’ friends seem to make her happy, and by about half-way through both of Frances’ romantic partners treat her terribly. Bake is charming and intelligent… But also a drinker, a cheater, and lets Frances down in the worst ways when she needs her. Bill alternates between distant and actively abusive (more on that later.). Frances wants to stay with her husband for the sake of her son… But her son seems to feel contempt for the women she keeps company with, and by extension her. There is a point in the book where he asks her to give up her queer friends, with every expectation that she’d comply, and while that’s depicted as selfish and awful on his part,

(Caution warning for this paragraph: rape) As a fair warning, there are minimum two rapes and a third attempted one in this book; strangely though, the marital rape is never referred to as such, whereas the lesbian one is clearly stated to be rape. I don’t know if it’s just the time that the book was written (marital rape didn’t become a crime in the states until the 1970s), or if it’s because the circumstances around the lesbian rape (it was by a stranger, with violence, and she was drunk), but it seems really odd that they’re treated so differently. Especially because one is treated as actively reprehensible, and the other as something that could be worked past. That sound you heard was me angrily shrieking at the book.

Without any spoilers; the ending is infuriating, to the point where I had to put it down and walk away for a while. But the afterword assures me that Stranger in Lesbos is the first book in a series, and that my problems with Frances’ romantic choices might be mitigated by the third book. And while parts of this book made me angry, the writing was good enough and I was emotionally invested enough that I am considering seeing if I could track down the rest of the series. So, if you’re interested in lesbian pulp fiction, this is a solid example of it, but there are parts of it that I have significant reservations about.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, adultery, abuse, incest, rape.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Kalyanii reviews Don’t Bang the Barista by Leigh Matthews

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If truth be told, my initial interest in Don’t Bang the Barista probably had something to do with my long-held crush on the red-headed, fresh-faced beauty who works the morning shift at the coffee shop a couple of blocks from my office. However, with the turn of the first few pages, it became clear that I had stumbled upon something special. Touted as “a fresh take on the classic genre of lesbian pulp fiction,” Don’t Bang the Barista proves intriguing, endearing and utterly captivating throughout.

Lest anyone be put off, the title is simply an allusion to the advice that Cass offers her friend Kate while discussing the politics of pursuing a barista crush. After all, imagine how awkward it could be if, after a few dates, it all went wrong. Who wouldn’t tread lightly? Yet, could it be that Cass’s concern has more to do with her feelings for Kate than a desire to protect the sanctity of their social space? Cultivating a burgeoning friendship via early morning conversations at the dog park, Cass and Kate enjoy an effortless rapport… until Cass begins to act a bit out of character.

Unable to figure out what lies beneath Cass’s tough-girl exterior, Kate assumes that Cass wants Hannah, the barista, for herself; yet, Kate is too preoccupied with her ex’s return to town to truly reach out and discover what it is that’s bothering her friend. All the while, Cass grows increasingly moody as well as distant. Though others find Cass’s feelings for Kate to be rather obvious, it is only upon determining with whom her own heart lies that Kate discovers it just may be too late.

For all of its light-hearted quirkiness, Don’t Bang the Barista does not shy away from an exploration of the challenges often encountered amid non-traditional relationship dynamics — without any disruption in the tone or flow of the narrative. The way in which Kate supports her bisexual friend, Em, in navigating her desire for a female lover while protecting her primary hetero relationship illuminates just as much about Kate and Em’s friendship as it does the validation of polyamory and conscious/consensual decision-making. The emotional impacts of in vitro fertilization, social alienation and heartbreak are investigated without for a moment compromising the novel’s hip and sexy vibe.

I was struck by the way in which the LGBT-friendly locale of East Vancouver allowed for a more nuanced presentation of the issues mentioned above and a more complex understanding of the characters who encounter them; whereas, in less accepting communities, identity issues — let alone physical and emotional survival — supercede more subtle human needs out of necessity alone. It’s basically a manifestation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once we feel safe within our environment, we are better able to enjoy the journey toward self-actualization, creating a meaningful and satisfying existence, which at the end of the day is precisely what the women of Don’t Bang the Barista are seeking.

[Editor’s note: also check out Danika’s review!]

Danika reviews Don’t Bang the Barista! by Leigh Matthews

dontbangthebarista

Kate is a twenty-something lesbian in Vancouver, still recovering from her last break up (which happened a year ago), and hopelessly crushing on her barista. The title is her friend Cass’s number one rule of coffee shop dating, but Kate thinks it might be worth breaking. Don’t Bang the Barista! follows Kate as she tries to figure out who she really has feelings for, and whether she’s truly over her ex.

I expected this book to be a bit of a guilty pleasure fun read. The back cover blurb begins with “Drawing on the classics of lesbian pulp fiction,” and I can definitely see the influence here. (Quick aside: don’t read any further in the blurb, because it gives away everything that happens in the first half of the book.) But for the most part, the tone is different than I’d expect. Kate is introspective and often seems to verge on being depressed. She is still dealing with a lot of issues from her last relationship and finds reaching out difficult. I also appreciated the detail given to secondary characters in the story. Kate’s group of friends all have their own distinct personalities and priorities, and they are all dealing with issues that are only tangentially related to her. They feel like real people in their own right, not just props in her narrative. There are a lot of details included that elevate Don’t Bang the Barista! from a modern lesbian pulp, making it seem realistic–like the ongoing inclusion of Kate’s dog Jupiter, and references to Kate’s work life, and even discussion of biphobia in the lesbian community. On a personal level, I also really enjoyed reading a book set so close to where I live. The west coast queer politics alluded to felt very familiar to me, and it was fun to recognize some landmarks while I was reading.

But this level of detail and nuance also raised my expectations for the novel. Sometimes the tone seemed to change, and what felt realistic would suddenly verge into the soap operatic. I could forgive that because it meant to be inspired by pulp, but it did feel inconsistent. Most of all, though, I was disappointed with the main romance of the novel. I could understand the attraction, but the love interest behaved pretty terribly throughout the book and by the end that seems to be forgotten in a way that genuinely confused me. Kate was initially angry, and then seemed to change her mind and blame herself. Because this is a romance at heart, this aspect really affected my enjoyment of the novel. The characters and detail were really enjoyable, but the romance I just couldn’t get on board with.

[spoilers below]

To be specific, I don’t understand why Kate (and everyone else, the end) blamed herself for Cass’s behaviour. Yes, I get that Cass is not used to serious relationships, and it’s not that her behaviour isn’t understandable, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. First she forcibly kisses Kate while she’s on a date with another woman (and might I add that Cass has never told Kate that she was interested before this point), then she has the gall to laugh it off when Kate confronts her on it? She acted like a complete asshole. And then Kate is the one who reaches out to her when she goes AWOL, and only then gives a half-assed apology. Then they go camping and Cass storms off in a huff because she heard that Kate talked to a hot girl. Then she holds hands with Kate, says it’s the happiest moment of her life, notices that she’s still wearing her ex’s ring, and then storms off again and goes and tracks down previously mentioned hot woman and sleeps with her, ignoring Kate the whole time, still not actually voicing that she likes her. Oh, and abandoning Kate with people she doesn’t even know. So after Kate finds her own way back, she runs into Cass while going out with her ex, and Cass’s first words to her are “Dude. What the fuck,” still with no apology for ditching her, and then gets pissed at Kate for getting back with ex and storms off again. (Side note, I also couldn’t believe that Kate didn’t get that Cass liked her at this point. She said holding hands with you was the happiest moment of her life and you don’t get the hint? She’s been acting like a jealous asshole 24/7?) At this point, Kate is like “Even if she likes me, this relationship could never work, since she can’t communicate at all” (paraphrase), which is completely accurate. Then Cass sees Kate and her ex at a coffee shop together and again storms off in a huff without saying anything. Kate still tries to seek Cass out, unsuccessfully, and then Kate emails her another half-assed apology and says “BTW I’m moving to Amsterdam BYE” (paraphrase). This is the point where Kate starts blaming herself, saying she pushed Cass away, and how could she do that when she now realizes that this is who she loves?? She waited too long! Kate again tries to seek out Cass, but she’s already moved out of her apartment. So she stakes out the airport to try to convince Cass to stay, but Cass brushes her off and won’t let her finish a sentence. Kate thinks “I could see how much I’d hurt her and I hated myself for it.” Because you got together with your ex when Cass had a) never voiced her feelings for you and b) just slept with another woman and ditched you to do so? You’re supposed to feel guilty about that? It might not have been a good decision, but it’s not because it hurt Cass’s feelings. If she wanted to get together with you, she should have stopped being an asshole and also asked you out. And then Kate’s friends tell her she should have told Cass how she felt earlier and Kate just wallows in guilt, apparently having completely forgotten that Cass has consistently been pretty much nothing but jerkish this entire book.

Sorry for the description of basically the entire plot between Cass and Kate, but I had to go back and make sure I wasn’t remembering things wrong. Where was I supposed to root for Cass? Why is Kate supposed to feel guilty? Why is it that them getting together is supposed to be the happy ending? And, might I add, they only get together because YET AGAIN Kate seeks Cass out on another continent this time. Like I said, I liked most of this book, but the romance is so baffling to me that I ended up rating it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Not a Cass fan, and I don’t understand how I’m expected to be, given how she acts the entire novel.

Guest Lesbrarian: Shanna

Another guest lesbrarian post! I love these. Please, please feel free to submit your own! Thank you, Shanna!

“‘And those awful rumors the students are spreading,’ Laura continued in a whisper. ‘Half the student body should be in the care of a psychiatrist, in my opinion.’”

So, at one point in my not-too-distant history, I was actually locked in a garage.  That is, someone locked me in the garage.  Yes, and it is all the fault of vintage lesbian pulp fiction.  I was out there, just hanging out and reading this giant encyclopedia of cheesy, bosom-heaving goodness, when my housemate thought it would be terribly funny to lock me out.

Whatever.  I promise that is related to this post. My point is, this stuff was bestselling back then because of it’s awesome, raunchy, over-the-top plots and forbidden love.  And you know what?  It’s still awesome, and I want to kiss Monica Nolan for bringing it back.

I’ll admit, I was sucked in by the amazingly campy cover of this book, perched enticingly on the new books display at Central Library.  This “First Shocking Printing” of Nolan’s third novel didn’t disappoint, either, and once again, I am rewarded for judging books by their covers.

The book is a campy mystery at an elite boarding school for girls.  Who killed the companion of the Metamora’s headmistress?  Did she jump from the tower in the middle of the night, or was she pushed?  Who is the glowing bicyclist that the students report seeing in the forest?  Are some of the girls actually able to communicate with the spirit world?  And how is it possible that girls from St. Mary’s were able to defeat the Metamora field hockey team?

The book is pure fun: full of sports puns, pulpy girl romance, and a funny cast of characters.  I am delighted to see the lesbian pulp fiction genre resurfacing with this light-hearted author, who doesn’t disappoint when she serves up this intrigue-laced romance against the perfect backdrop of the terribly cliched boarding school.  What’s not to like?

Happy Reading!

Nolan, Monica. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher. New York: Kensington Books, 2010.  290 pp.

Author’s website: http://www.monicanolan.com

Thanks again, Shanna! You can check out her blog here.