Think of the Victorian Gothic. Images of dismal gloom, the inexplicably supernatural, and the fantastically picturesque probably come to mind. Ghosts and vampires–all that shit–abound within the genre, and it is described by many as the literature of excess. But that’s what makes it so damn interesting, and that’s also what makes it so similar to the movies and TV shows that are successful right now. Think Twilight and that whole brand of vamp-based entertainment.
Much of the literature that we categorize as Victorian Gothic follows very strict plot formulas–to the point of almost being predictable. However, some of the literature of the same era (literature that readers may not even consider to be Gothic) contains Gothic elements or undertones.
Two works that illustrate these two poles–good old fashioned predictable gothic vs. “hey, that’s not gothic, is it?”–of the Gothic spectrum are J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (which, chances are you’ve never fuckin’ heard of), and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which, unless you’re some kind of sheltered weirdo, you’ve heard of).
Carmilla is undisputedly and indisputably a Victorian Gothic text. Arguably the original vampire story (so say thanks to J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Buffy fans), it follows a typical template for a Gothic plot. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, however, is not so blatantly Gothic.
With Dickens’ story, the setting is smoggy and industrial London (vintage Charles), rather than foggy moors, but many of the typical elements of a Victorian Gothic story still exist in the text. For example: the story is blatantly cautionary, has supernatural elements, and is based around the idea of Scrooge’s past coming back to haunt him—all of which are characteristics of a Gothic tale. So Carmilla and A Christmas Carol may seem unrelated stories at first, but take a closer look and furrow your brow a bit and it becomes evident that they’re cut from the same cloth and occupy different ends of the Gothic spectrum.
The Past Comes Back to Haunt You
The plot of Victorian Gothic tales is frequently based around the unpleasant and dangerous return of the past to the present. This element is inherent in both the plots of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, but the authors take different routes.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge’s past haunts his present in two different ways: most obviously by the ghosts of Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Marley, being Scrooge’s late business partner, is a link to all of the miser-like activities that they both were guilty of in the early years of their business. Marley’s visit to Scrooge’s present is a representation of the future consequences of his past. Scrooge sees the chain that Marley is burdened by in the afterlife and knows that he has “laboured on” forging his coil for seven years since Marley’s death, and his will be seven years heavier.
More blatantly, we’ve got The Ghost of Christmas Past: an ambiguous looking figure “like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man.” A literal manifestation of the past coming back to give Scrooge shit about being dick. The idea that the Ghost of Christmas Past makes an “unpleasant” return to Scrooge’s present is ironic in the sense that the nature of the unpleasantness is due to the happiness that existed in Scrooge’s past. The joy and cheer that Scrooge sees his younger self feeling with his sister Fan and at Mr. Fezziwig’s party force him to realize how miserable and miserly he’s become since then. The disturbing element of the past’s imposition on Scrooge’s present lies not in the memories of the past, but in Scrooge himself. It is an unconventional return of the past, but an undeniably Gothic element to the story.
Carmilla, on the other hand, is a more traditionally Gothic plot where the return of the past is an evil occurrence because the past itself is embodied in an evil entity. Mircalla Karnstein (spoiler, she’s a fucking evil-ass vampire who also happens to be a lesbian), who befriends Laura, the protagonist, under the name Carmilla, and eventually is revealed to be a vampire. Two Gothic elements of this story that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol lacks are the danger of the past returning, as well as the moment of revelation where the characters realize that there is a supernatural threat present in their lives.
Carmilla, being a vampire, poses a legitimate lethal hazard to Laura, whereas the ghosts that haunt Scrooge are there for his own benefit—they want to help him alter his lifestyle before it is too late. Carmilla does not have any intention except for her desire to gorge herself upon human blood like a motherfucking deer tick in July. Furthermore, in Carmilla, there is the moment when the characters realize who Carmilla is, the horrifying moment where the mystery is solved through the (I give up some plot points and use some character names that you probably won’t get. Sue me. Read the story, it’s quick, easy and actually really good) story of Berta Rheinfeldt and the discovery of Mircalla Karnstein’s grave. This moment is present in much of Gothic Literature: the identification of a vampire, the realization that a family estate is haunted, or the discovery that a person is actually a ghost. This moment, however, is not to be found in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Both of these narratives are cautionary tales, which is a common trend among the Gothic literature of the Victorian Era. While A Christmas Carol cautions its readers against being miserly, Carmilla serves as a warning against many things—such as letting vampires into one’s home (because we all run that risk), and it can also be seen as a cautionary tale against the seduction of vampires, as Laura, the protagonist, feels a very clear (homosexual) romantic sexual attraction towards Carmilla, an attraction that almost leads to her death (don’t get all up in my boy J. Sheridan’s face about being homophobic/writing a cautionary tale against the perils of being a lesbian. He wrote this shit in like 1872).
Watching Laura’s near demise as a result of her female sexuality would have deterred young girls from being overtly sexual, especially towards other females (I can hear the feminists wringing their hands out in rage!). Laura herself even admits to feeling a certain wrongness in her feelings towards Carmilla, saying, “I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards her,’ but there was also something of repulsion.” Despite her feelings of repulsion, Laura cannot resist Carmilla’s seductive nature and eventually succumbs to the power of her sexuality, as “with gloating eyes [Carmilla] she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.’”
This attraction that Laura feels towards Carmilla never goes away—even after it is revealed that she’s an evil vampire (akin to the drunken feelings you might develop for a stripper never quite go away, even when you sober up and realize she was a stripper and that you showered her with ones so she’d say all those nice things and put her titties in your face and grind up on your boner).
The very last line of the story, in which Laura says “ Carmilla returns to my memory. . . often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.” Clearly, the emotional and sexual effect of the vampire, like the numbness it leaves after its icy touch, may never be recovered from. The narrative of Carmilla, in which Laura is almost victimized through seduction, served as a warning for female homosexual relations, which was such a radical idea at the time (For real, J. Sheridan was a man of his time. I’m sure if he was born in 1992 he’d be totally cool with it) that most people in Victorian times didn’t even believe it existed.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is more generally applicable to any reader that picks up the book and flips through the pages. When we read of Scrooge’s miserly actions on Christmas, complaining that it is nothing more than “a poor excuse for picking a man’s picket every twenty-fifth of Decebmer” (he ain’t wrong) when he is forced to give his clerk the day off with pay. However, once the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, as well as the ghost of Jacob Marley enter into the plot, the nature of Dickens’ tale becomes explicitly cautionary. Marley’s whole purpose in the narrative is to caution Scrooge against the dismal fate that awaits him when he dies, and each of the Christmas ghosts plays a role in warning Scrooge that he’s alienated himself through all the years he’s spent dismissing Christmas as “humbug.”
One of the more direct and disturbing cautionary elements of the story is when the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to Ignorance and Want, “a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.” The Ghost warns Scrooge: “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!…Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”
So, recap: Carmilla is really only applicable to younger female readers, Dickens’ message is completely universal. Using Scrooge’s life as a cautionary tale, he is able to warn all of his readership against Ignorance and Want, as they are able to read about how Scrooge has lived his life and see it as an example of how not to live. Scrooge’s life is an example of one filled with Ignorance and Want, and Dickens shows how undesirable—as well as how lonely—a life of that nature would be.
When the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own grave, and how there would be no mourners at his funeral, it is safe to assume that having an empty funeral is a fear of most human beings. Through the example of Scrooge, Dickens is able to warn his readers that if they live anything like Scrooge, they need to reevaluate their lifestyle or they will die alone after living a solitary and unfulfilled life, when they could’ve lived a life of love, like Tiny Tim’s family.
Looking at both of these stories, Carmilla and A Christmas Carol, one is able to see that they both fall on opposite ends of the Victorian Gothic spectrum. Le Fanu’s Carmilla is a cookie-cutter Gothic story filled with gloom, vampires, and the supernatural. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is not so explicitly Gothic, yet when one looks into the plot elements and the types of characters that fill the story, we can see that it employs many of the same elements as Carmilla, just to a different end. The past reintroduces itself into the present, the text is filled with ghosts and the fantastic, and the whole story is a cautionary tale against the consequence of living a life of selfishness and greed. While there are no vampires, and the ghosts of the texts are not “evil” per se, it is wrong to write off A Christmas Carol as just another Christmas story, when in reality there is much more to it than that. The plot elements and nature of the story itself allow for Dickens’ work to be categorized in the same realm as Fanu’s Carmilla, even if they are far apart on the spectrum of Victorian Gothic Literature.