So, I finally binge-watched Carmilla

This was supposed to be my Halloween post. I’ve actually gotten a few requests to review this literary vlog series. I kept putting it off because I knew once I got started, I’d want to watch the whole thing in one sitting. I was right. First, a little background on the source material.

Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The Dark Blue, January 1872. Image via Wikipedia.

Carmilla is a vampire novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu that predates Dracula by twenty-six years. Aside from its place in the history of the horror literary genre, it’s noteworthy in that it features a tragic romance between the eponymous female vampire and the human female narrator. This isn’t subtext speculation or revisionist history. It’s right there in the 1871 text.

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.” And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek. – Carmilla, Chapter IV

So, yeah. Basically Carmilla was Twilight for Victorian girls if Edward was a woman and died at the end. It’s one of my favorite classical guilty pleasures. Laura’s intense attraction to Carmilla coupled with her fear and frustration at having these feelings in the first place is written as effectively as any Austen heroine’s. Although Carmilla meets the tragic end that all monsters must in classic Gothic horror, she’s a remarkably sympathetic character. One easily gets the impression that, contrary to Proto Van Helsing’s slander, her feelings for Laura become true love, not the inhuman lust she’s accused of. The end leaves it nearly certain that, despite Laura’s participation in Carmilla’s death, Carmilla’s forbidden love was returned:

It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations–sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door. – Carmilla, Chapter XVI

Carmilla the webseries replaces the Gothic castle of the original with a modern-day college campus. If you think “lesbian coed vampires” sounds like a great premise for a porno, you’re going to be disappointed. If you think it’s a great premise for a modern update that keeps all the elements that made the original novella awesome while updating the elements that have thankfully changed with the times, you’re going to love this webseries as much as I do.

carmilla and laura
Natasha Negovanlis as Carmilla, and Elise Bauman as Laura.

My first question about this update was how they’d handle the lesbian stuff. The answer is “Very well.” Although the mostly-female cast is certainly good-looking, the show obviously wasn’t shot or staged for the male gaze. The writing makes you care more about whether Laura and Carmilla will fall in love than whether they’ll make out. Laura’s queerness is taken for granted, not played for angst or drama. The same goes for the other queer characters. I say “queer” because the writing doesn’t specify whether any of these young women are lesbian or bi. No one in-universe seems to care. Nor does anyone find it shocking or incredulous that platonic friendships exist between queer women, or between queer and straight women. (Actually, I’m not sure any of these women are straight. But there are definitely women who are close to each other and don’t seem like they’re ready to make out the second you turn your back, something plenty of shows with supposedly all-hetero casts can’t get right.)

My second question was how they handle the vampire stuff. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) This Carmilla is indeed an actual vampire. Her backstory is nearly the same in this series as in the original novella. And, like any good postmodern monster, she can and does choose whether to use her curse for good or evil. In this incarnation, she’s covertly helping the young women she’s supposed to lure to her dark mistress. Which was always my theory about the original. Think Snape as a double agent for the Death Eaters. Now that I think of it, that’s a pretty good way to sum up this Carmilla. She’s FemSnape.

My third and most important question was whether Carmilla and Laura would live (or un-die) happily ever after in this version. I don’t have a definitive answer for that yet since the series is still running, with updates every Tuesday and Thursday. But the way the first 31 episodes have gone, I’ll be surprised and heartbroken if they don’t.

Want to check it out for yourself? Click here to go to the YouTube page, or watch the complete playlist embedded below. Click here to read the full text of the original novella on Gutenberg, available in-browser or as a free e-reader download.

Nicola Tesla, Vampire: NBC’s Dracula

What if Nicola Tesla were a vampire, and the corporate overlords who suppressed his inventions for their own profits were part of an ancient Draconian order of vampire hunters?

I get the impression that was the original premise of NBC’s Dracula, and the network ended up using Bram Stoker’s public domain characters instead for the sake of mainstream familiarity. Here is Jonathon Rhys Meyers as Dracula:

Image via Zap2It

And here is a colorized photo of Tesla:

Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The story here is that Dracula, having been resurrected from his Romanian crypt, has come to London posing as an American inventor/entrepreneur named Alexander Grayson. Though the American part is a facade, the inventor part isn’t. Drac has a steampunk machine in his basement that conducts wireless geomagnetic energy and looks a lot like a Tesla coil. Rumor has it that he was chased out of the States by Thomas Edison. In England, he’s immediately branded a threat by the elite of the burgeoning oil industry. Who also happen to be the leaders of the Order of the Dragon, inquisition-like vampire hunters who executed Dracula’s family centuries ago.

All the familiar figures from Stoker’s novel are here in name. Jonathan Harker is a journalist as in the book. He’s courting Mina Murray (played by Huntress from Arrow), a promising young medical student, but they’re not engaged yet and he introduces her as a “friend”. The idiot won’t propose because he thinks she can do better. Be that as it may, Mina wants to do him.  Her brassy BFF Lucy Westenra (played by Morgana from Merlin with an ill-advised blonde dye job) thinks Jonathan is boring and that Mina needs someone more exciting. Enter Dracula, to whom Mina was apparently married in a past life. Rounding out the gang is Van Helsing, Mina’s med school professor and Dracula’s handler.

Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, and Lucy Westenra. Image via Period Drama

This incarnation of Dracula is suitably creepy, dangerous, and bloodthirsty, but overall I’d describe him as an antihero. The real villains are the Order of the Dragon. They’re the people a modern audience loves to hate. Politicians. Corporate fatcats. Oil barons. Anti-science traditionalists who fear, hate, and destroy anything that deviates from what they deem acceptable, even as they participate in those deviations in the shadows. Dracula is the grey hat to the Order’s black hat.

Overall, I put this miniseries in the Guilty Pleasure category. It is a thick slice of red velvet cheesecake served on “vintage” Victorian china from Anthropologie. Don’t watch if you’re wanting more Sleepy Hollow. Watch if you want pretty people in pretty neo-Victorian costumes, suave throat-slitters/blood-drinkers, almost-couples who are too brainy for their own damn good, and steampunk. I hope to enjoy every decadent slice of this cheesecake as much as the first.

Want to read Bram Stoker’s original novel on your computer, smartphone, tablet, or e-reader? Click here. For bonus Victorian vampire guilty pleasures, check out Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla, which predates Dracula by over 20 years and stars a lady vampire in an interesting relationship with her female prey.