Bram Stoker may have been the first to perfect the literary vampire, but he was certainly not the first to creep people out with a good monster. Carmilla was here first (by over 20 years), and she is perfectly frightening herself. After a carriage crashes near their remote forest estate, our narrator Laura and her father agree to take in a young woman as their guest while her mother travels on and promises to return for her. Not too surprisingly, young girls in the nearby village start dying of a mysterious ailment following a vivid nightmare of a monster in their rooms. Laura and her new friend form a deep bond very quickly, but Laura starts to become suspicious and anxious when she starts having the same nightmares described by the dying girls.
With the accumulated history of vampire fiction already in your head, it’s pretty obvious what Carmilla is from the beginning of the story, but the suspense is still very much there as the family and neighbors fail to figure it out. While never overtly sexual, there is a lot of really compelling subtext in the intense way that Carmilla and Laura quickly bond together and relate to each other:
…with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”
Laura is equally taken with Carmilla, and it’s difficult not to see this as a story of a taboo lesbian infatuation, which makes it all the more engaging. Laura’s first encounter with the monster is genuinely frightening, and the patterned way Carmilla enters the lives of her preferred victims is established effectively through a kind of flashback. If I could change anything in the story, I’d love to have the build of the mystery drawn out more, and the solution be a bit less easy. (I guess I really just wish there was more of it.) But those are minor quibbles with a story that I think is rightfully seen as a classic.