Its power is not confined to its grasp

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

Audible included a dramatization of Carmilla, the vampire novella by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, as one of its free Audible Originals for October, and I finally got around to experiencing this gothic work, which predates Dracula by 26 years. (If you’re wondering about an Irishman named “Le Fanu,” he came from a French Huguenot family.)

I was under the impression that Dracula introduced the charming, aristocratic vampire — in contrast to the ugly monster of folklore — but Carmilla is a charming, aristocratic vampire, too, only female. (Most descriptions of the book seem to emphasize the lesbian subtext of her preying on beautiful young women.) Her animal alter ego is a monstrous black cat, rather than a large dog, like Dracula, and she can pass through walls, like a ghost. Her grip is also deadly, as the story’s proto-Van Helsing, Baron Vordenburg,  explains, while wrapping up the story:

My father related to the Baron Vordenburg, who remained with us for two or three weeks after the expulsion of Carmilla, the story about the Moravian nobleman and the vampire at Karnstein churchyard, and then he asked the Baron how he had discovered the exact position of the long-concealed tomb of the Countess Mircalla? The Baron’s grotesque features puckered up into a mysterious smile; he looked down, still smiling on his worn spectacle case and fumbled with it. Then looking up, he said:

“I have many journals, and other papers, written by that remarkable man; the most curious among them is one treating of the visit of which you speak, to Karnstein. The tradition, of course, discolors and distorts a little. He might have been termed a Moravian nobleman, for he had changed his abode to that territory, and was, beside, a noble. But he was, in truth, a native of Upper Styria. It is enough to say that in very early youth he had been a passionate and favored lover of the beautiful Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. Her early death plunged him into inconsolable grief. It is the nature of vampires to increase and multiply, but according to an ascertained and ghostly law.

“Assume, at starting, a territory perfectly free from that pest. How does it begin, and how does it multiply itself? I will tell you. A person, more or less wicked, puts an end to himself. A suicide, under certain circumstances, becomes a vampire. That specter visits living people in their slumbers; they die, and almost invariably, in the grave, develop into vampires. This happened in the case of the beautiful Mircalla, who was haunted by one of those demons. My ancestor, Vordenburg, whose title I still bear, soon discovered this, and in the course of the studies to which he devoted himself, learned a great deal more.

“Among other things, he concluded that suspicion of vampirism would probably fall, sooner or later, upon the dead Countess, who in life had been his idol. He conceived a horror, be she what she might, of her remains being profaned by the outrage of a posthumous execution. He has left a curious paper to prove that the vampire, on its expulsion from its amphibious existence, is projected into a far more horrible life; and he resolved to save his once beloved Mircalla from this.

“He adopted the stratagem of a journey here, a pretended removal of her remains, and a real obliteration of her monument. When age had stolen upon him, and from the vale of years, he looked back on the scenes he was leaving, he considered, in a different spirit, what he had done, and a horror took possession of him. He made the tracings and notes which have guided me to the very spot, and drew up a confession of the deception that he had practiced. If he had intended any further action in this matter, death prevented him; and the hand of a remote descendant has, too late for many, directed the pursuit to the lair of the beast.”

We talked a little more, and among other things he said was this:

“One sign of the vampire is the power of the hand. The slender hand of Mircalla closed like a vice of steel on the General’s wrist when he raised the hatchet to strike. But its power is not confined to its grasp; it leaves a numbness in the limb it seizes, which is slowly, if ever, recovered from.”


  1. Graham says:

    I’m long curious about the trope in which vampires and werewolves are mortal enemies. I have no idea if it has any folklore roots or is purely an artifact of deliberate published work, and if so how modern.

    I have seen the notion that vampires and werewolves in the earliest folklore had more in common, which is consistent with the idea that the folkloric vampire was a grotesque figure.

  2. Harold says:

    Polidori’s The Vampyre, written in 1816, features a charming aristocratic vampire.

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