carmilla by sheridan le fanu

With every book they publish, many authors likely have a goal to have their stories immortalized forever. Some stories fade into obscurity, while others have staying power that outlasts in unthinkable ways. There are stories, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, that always seem to be brought back in one way or another. For decades since their publication, they continue to be spoken about at length by enthusiastic readers. However, sometimes there are smaller stories that, to certain groups of people, mean the world to them.

The theme of Short Story Fest 2022 is Grand New World. The basic meaning of this theme is moving forward through the unknown, using the lessons we’ve learned in the past to truly traverse through the wilds. Recently, I read the 1872 Gothic novella, Carmilla, written by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu and edited by Carmen Maria Machado. In my past, I have always had a particular soft spot for Gothic horror and only within the last few months had I decided to pick it up when I was at my local bookstore. The main selling point, besides the fact that it intrigued me as a young queer adult who has long loved horror, was the fact that I knew of Carmilla in the past.

For me, an important piece of this year’s festival theme is legacy, and learning from it for a newer generation. With the world being littered with reboots, reimaginings, and remakes it can be hard to imagine anything of that caliber truly being original, or learning from mistakes made. Carmilla is the story that is singlehandedly responsible for the lesbian vampire trope, which has been damaging to say the least. Within the confines of the story, the fact that Carmilla is a lesbian is never acknowledged as a serious negative. However, one can draw conclusions from its time period; the very fact that she is depicted as a predator of women could draw the absolute worst possible conclusion in terms of connecting homosexuality to predation.

From 2014 to 2016, a Canadian YouTube channel called KindaTV would release a single-frame shot Web-series called Carmilla, created by Jordan Hall, Steph Ouaknine, and Jay Bennett. While this is the Short Story Book Club, I think it is fascinating to look at the legacy of how this short novella, long forgotten compared to its more famous contemporaries like Dracula, updated its premise for LGBTQ+ people in the 21st century. 

The theme of the festival has to do with learning from the past, and I do believe that is what Carmilla (2014) is capable of doing. One of the biggest problems with the original Carmilla story is that while there is ambiguity, a reader of the past could easily read this as a cautionary tale: the story of a lesbian preying upon an innocent young woman and the eventual end that the former meets solely because of her homosexuality. The updated adaptation of the story goes to great lengths to be openly queer and to depict that queerness as an inherently positive thing. Parts of the original novella contain era-appropriate negative connotations with Carmilla’s preference for women; in the adaptation, characters are very unabashed about their sexualities and gender identities. This shows how times have changed in terms of how to properly represent queer people in fiction.

As an adaptation, it has its own long running story unrelated to the actual plot of the original Carmilla. But that ends up being for the best as it most takes its inspiration in aesthetics and themes. It learns not to rehash the past, as Carmilla told its story in the most perfect way it could for the time of its creation. However, at the same time, it knows that there are still things to be improved upon that could be taken into a newer era. And that is the nature of moving forward with fictional media. There are stories that have been told in the past, and newer stories are being written to be told. At the same time, I do believe there is room for us to look at something older, re-evaluate it, and see what can be done with it for a newer group of people. I think that’s the nature of what one should do with knowledge gained from the past: Use it in any way you like. Whether that be applying it to a completely original creation, or continuing to build upon a story you love.

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