Carmilla may be the best vampire tale ever written. Like most vampire tales the ending is anti-climatic, the good guys win, the vampire is destroyed. Unlike Dracula, it’s never entered the mainstream and attempts to film it have been awful.
But in the middle of the nineteenth century, Le Fanu plays sophisticated games with his narrative. Today it’s usually described as a lesbian vampire tale. Very naughty, very trendy. But Le Fanu was too good to be so obvious. (And would he have got away with it if he was? Good Queen Vic reputedly had only recently declared there was no such thing)
Carmilla is a vampire, and she is attracted to the female narrator. Though in what way, other than as a food source, remains ambivalent.
The narrator can't decide but records her confusion. Unlike Uncle Silas, there is no evidence in the narrative to qualify Laura's confusion. This produces a feeling that everything is slightly out of focus. It's made worse because a modern reader knows so much more about literary vampires than Le Fanu's original audience and can't help but wonder why the narrator is so slow. (If he had thought his audience knew as much as a modern reader, the long exposition would have been omitted as unnecessary. (Although Hollywood doesn't seem to have learnt this lesson.)
As in Uncle Silas, the reader probably picks up the clues much faster than the narrator does, who remains innocent right to the end. You could read it as a lesbian story, but you can just as easily see it as one of those over wrought expressions of Victorian female friendship. Because both options are possible, the story has an unsettling ambivalence, like The Devil in Love, which is far beyond the usual hot house sexuality of modern vampire novels.
Le Fanu inhabits the margins, the space where decisions and definitions are not easily made. Like the Lady’s invitation to Gawain, Carmilla offers the reader the opportunity to do with the story as he or she wishes.