The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

The Annotated Carmilla

Posted by BigWords on September 19, 2011

This is part of the Carmilla blog tour

Night Tinted Glasses
Facebook Page of the Tour
A Paranormal Lovers View
Review of ‘The Polish Carmilla’
Search for the Lure of the Vampire
Chastity’s Romance News
The Graveyard (Lair of Gary James)

Future Participants:
Dustin Bishop
Eventide Envisions
The Ramblings of Amy
Kay Dee Royal, Paranormal & Erotica Romance Musings
Illusions of Intimacy
Suburban Vampire

But first on earth, as vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent,
Then ghastly haunt thy native place
And suck the blood of all thy race.

Byron; The Giaour, 755.

It isn’t often that I spend time talking about books here, but I am going to make an exception for a book which goes some way to unraveling the mysteries of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla for new readers and longtime fans alike. For such a classic text, it is rather surprising that this is the first instance of someone going through the references and cultural motifs to make the reading a little easier, though – as I will explain – it isn’t perfect. It is a worthy addition to any horror library, and makes an interesting companion piece to Les Klinger’s New Annotated Dracula, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I’ll go through each aspect of the title in order, and hopefully convince a few of you that you should fork over your cash for a fellow Absolute Writer‘s work. There’s a lot of material to cover for a book examining such a short text.

With the story being presented in sixteen sections, it is somewhat irksome that the numbering of the footnotes runs on through the book, rather than beginning afresh with each chapter. It isn’t a major issue (and it is one which a few other notable reference works have made), but it niggles at the perfectionist gene I have. If you can overlook the numbering, the information is quite amazing, though not to the extent that it covers every permutation of possible meanings for some of the footnoted material. The lack of an index at the end of the work, which I will come back to, is also the proper place for some of the footnoted material – any time something needs to be remarked upon in a fuller manner, or which is a recurring element, then it should be moved out of the body of the work into a separate section, as with the numerous instances of “Countess” being discussed. It’s easily ignored when reading through the footnotes, but in close examination rather clumsy.

Having read through the ebook version of this a few times, it is beginning to throw up some surprises. There are passages which fly past unremarked upon, and there are dense thickets of annotated text which requires some degree of scrolling to and fro. As I have mentioned before, I really do like to have more information than I really need, especially when the subject is as compelling as this. Indeed, there are instances where the speculation in the footnotes doesn’t go far enough for my liking. Not that many reference works manage to dig up everything, but it is especially glaring when there may be clues to pick apart if some of the more esoteric information were given a bit of space. Some of the omissions are understandable, but others are more irritating – crucially, there are numerous references to types of wood throughout the text, and the woodsman’s daughter plays an important part in the story, though the mythology of wood is not fully explored.

The matter of wood is an essential mood-setter for much of the story. We are told explicitly that there are magnificent lime trees, given the description of a sylvan horizon, and told how Laura’s nursery was filled with wood. Aside from the important weakness to wood in stakes through the heart, there are numerous fables, myths and legends which Carmilla may be riffing on. Red Riding Hood would certainly have been known to Le Fanu, though this is only remarked on in passing the footnotes once – this is a recurring issue, where some contextual information is given while other, equally important data, is either glossed over briefly, or completely absent. Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed is (surprisingly) completely absent from the text, and, considering the legends which sprang up around her, it is a reference point which would have seemed natural. With the first accounts being published in 1817, it is beyond doubt that at least some of the information lent itself to Le Fanu’s imagination.

Ivy, fortunately, is remarked upon in the footnotes, but not that it is believed to be a prevention for drunkenness (which is often how the vampiric act of drinking blood is compared to), nor that it is phallic, and represents the male trinity. Even more important, especially in regards to the plot, it is held as a symbol of ever-lasting life and immortality for Christians. Le Fanu certainly knew all this, and used the symbolism peppered throughout the story to give contemporary readers clues as to the nature of Carmilla. There are other examples of Le Fanu’s showmanship which goes without a fuller and more comprehensive reading, but none of this takes away from the already-impressive list of references which has been compiled for this, the first edition. In future updates I hope to see a drastic increase in these types of minor quibbles which most readers would probably pass over.

The images used to adorn each of the title pages are wonderfully chosen, and manage to add a certain class to the project. If there’s a problem with most works covering classic texts it is the inappropriate imagery used to illustrate matters. Here? Perfect choices throughout. Go on – take a look at the classics covered in what amounts to film advertising, and then look at the black and white photographs which David has chosen for this. If you don’t nod in approval, there is something wrong with you.

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One Response to “The Annotated Carmilla”

  1. A thousand thanks for your review–including criticisms of where I might have done better. Personally, I don’t see any particular reason to mention Erzebet Bathori in the footnotes, but that is just me.

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