Ireland’s Queen of Vampire Fiction, by Maolsheachlann Le Fanu


If you were asked to name an Irish author who had written one of the first and most influential of all vampire stories, you would almost certainly reply: “Bram Stoker”. If you were told that this vampire story featured a remote castle in central Europe, fearful peasants, a young girl dying as a result of nocturnal visits from a vampire, and the assistance of an old man who has researched the ways of vampires, you might say: “Yes, that definitely sounds like Dracula by Bram Stoker.”

But the description could just as well apply to Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The most surprising thing is that Carmilla was first published in book form in 1872 – more than two decades before Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in 1897.

As well as similarities, of course, there are big differences between the two narratives. First off, Carmilla is not a full-length novel, but rather a short story, or more precisely a novella. It was one of five stories in Le Fanu’s collection In A Glass Darkly.

But the most notable difference between Dracula and Carmilla is that the villain of Le Fanu’s story, the Carmilla of the title, is a female vampire. Indeed, it might fairly be said that she is the most famous female vampire of all time. Which means that Ireland has given birth to both the king and queen of vampire fiction!
Debate has raged for over a hundred years on the influence that Le Fanu’s story might have had on Dracula. There is much disagreement, and nobody can even say for sure that Stoker ever read Carmilla, though it seems reasonable to assume he did.

Just like Dracula, Carmilla has featured in far too many films, TV series, and books to list here. Most famous, perhaps, is the Hammer studio’s “Karnstein Trilogy”, whose first instalment The Vampire Lovers (1970) is a retelling of Le Fanu’s story.
But who was Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the creator of this enduring character?

Le Fanu is an author whose fame in the field of horror literature rests on much more than a single tale. The great English writer of spooky stories, M.R. James, famously stated that Le Fanu is “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”, a judgement with which few fans of the horror genre would disagree.

Born in 1814, Le Fanu was the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. The famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of School for Scandal, was his grand-uncle, and there was a strong literary tradition in his childhood. His early childhood was spent in a house in the Phoenix Park, and on several occasions Le Fanu would draw on the nearby village of Chapelizod as a setting for his stories.

In 1826, Le Fanu’s family moved to Abington in County Limerick, where his father served as the Church of Ireland rector. At this time, the (Protestant) Church of Ireland was still the established church of the country, despite the fact that the vast majority of Irish people were Catholics. Catholics were required to pay contributions (“tithes”) to the upkeep of the Church of Ireland, even though it was not their own church.

Catholic discontent at this situation led to the outbreak of the Tithe War of the 1830s, a campaign of both passive and (sometimes) violent resistance to the paying of tithes. It was only one episode in a larger trend of the time: power passing (gradually and with much resistance) from the Protestant minority of which Le Fanu was a member, to the Catholic majority who were becoming increasingly educated and well-organized.

It has frequently been suggested that the instability of this time, and his experience as part of an embattled minority, were a decisive influence on Le Fanu, and explain much of the darkness and pessimism in his writings.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own