“Through Every Door and Passage”: A Liminal Reading of Carmilla

Mark M. Hennelly, Jr.

California State University, Sacramento

(ISSN 1932-9598)

Under a narrow, arched doorway, surmounted by one of those demoniacal grotesques in
which the cynical and ghastly fancy of old Gothic carving delights, I saw very gladly the
beautiful face and figure of Carmilla enter the shadowy chapel (75).–Sheridan Le Fanu,

[I]n many of these [creation myths’] cosmogonies and theogonies, the deities and heroes mate
incestuously, devour one another, and clearly transgress human and cultural norms of justice
and equity. By these acts, despite priestly editing, the liminal character of the myth betrays
itself. And, indeed, in most of these cycles of great myths, trickster figures may be found
peeping grotesquely forth like the gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals (581).–Victor Turner, “Myth
and Symbol”

Laura’s account of her pilgrimage arriving at the sepulchre of Countess Mircalla, cited above, is  
representative of the paradoxes riddling Sheridan Le Fanu’s
Carmilla (1871-72): its meaning
seems both over-determined and indeterminate. On the one hand, repeated references to
portentous portals, spectral monsters, self-reflexive Gothicism, but also sublime beauty,
dominate the text; on the other hand, skeptical epistemologies, narrative unreliability,
disturbing Beauty-Beast
doppelgängers, and theological uncertainty–or better, uncertain
theological certainty–deconstruct it. And the current vogue of compelling feminist and
postcolonial readings seems, finally,  limited since their ideologies account for too few of these
paradoxes. As the second citation from anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) suggests,
however, a comparative liminal reading of Le Fanu’s haunting vampire tale may prove more
comprehensive in contextualizing
Carmilla’s paradoxes, while still honoring its uncanny
mysteries and addressing such troubling motifs as “priestly” interference, vampire-human
incest, violent orality, cultural transgression, and ambiguous “trickster figures,” particularly the
ancestral (and rhetorical) “figure of Carmilla” herself which reflects a real crisis in
representation. Indeed, the advantages of a liminal approach include linking apparently
unconnected motifs like the moon and monsters, critically qualifying recent readings like those
of female friendships and postcolonial hybridity, and challenging textual revelations like the
ultimate fate of Bertha Rheinfeldt and motivation of Baron Vordenburg.

In past readings of Coleridge’s seductive succubus tale
Christabel (1797) and Stoker’s vampire
Dracula (1897), the two major works toward which Janus-faced Carmilla looks before and
after, I have tried to document their betwixt-and-between paradoxes by comparing them with
Turner’s interdisciplinary, liminal approach to initiation rituals (see Works Cited). In this sense,
one can best appreciate
Carmilla’s “portentous portals” or thresholds by imitating both the “two
distinct characters” of Dr. Hesselius, the ultimate recipient of Laura’s text in
In a Glass Darkly,
who liminally examines his patient “either through his own hall-door, to the light of day, or
through the gates of darkness to the caverns of the dead,” and his correspondent-reader
Professor Van Loo, a practicing chemist who also reads “history and metaphysics and medicine,
and had, in his day, written a play” (5-6). To be sure, recent critics of both Gothic and Victorian
literature, and even of
Carmilla, have generally cited the relevance of liminal motifs. Matthew
Brennan, for example, notes that the Gothic always practices “an aesthetics of nightmare, an
aesthetics of the liminal and of crossed or open boundaries” (6), while Kelly Hurley more
relevantly indicates that “the monstrosities of the
fin-de-siècle Gothic are monstrous precisely
because of their liminality. To be Undead, to be simultaneously human and animal, to shift from
one sexed identity to another, is to explode crucial binarisms that lie at the foundation of human
identity” (24-25). Hyun-Jung Lee’s comments prove even more pertinent: “Le Fanu’s novella
puts particular emphasis on the vampire’s liminal nature and its power to draw the victim into
that same space of uncertainty” (27). Sarah Gilead argues that “[i]t was perhaps inevitable that a
virtual obsession with liminality should characterize Victorian literature: social critics
commonly characterize the period as an ‘age of transition,’ as a liminal period in a history of
spiritual, moral, and intellectual as well as material progress” (186). And modern biographer W.
J. McCormack insists “that transitional states of sensibility” were rampant in Le Fanu’s Ireland,
wavering between colonial and postcolonial perspectives. (255). Even during the Victorian
period itself, pioneer anthropologists like H. Clay Trumbull in
The Threshold Covenant (1896)
realized the significance of what Le Fanu suggestively describes as “call[ing] ‘Carmilla,’ through
every door and passage” (76):

in various ways, among widely different primitive peoples, the marriage customs go to show that the home
threshold cannot be passed except by overcoming a barrier of some kind, and making an offering, bloody
or bloodless, at this primal family altar.  An essential part of the covenant of union is a halting at, and then
passing over, the threshold of the new home, with an accompanying sacrifice (35).

But again, it is Victor Turner who has most specifically and successfully theorized the liminal
beyond such general notions as the nightmarish, or monstrous, or uncertain, or transitional, or
even ritualistic. Both Turner’s increasingly playful approach to liminality (and recognition of the
ludic within the liminal), “the realm of primitive hypothesis, where there is a certain freedom to
juggle with the factors of existence” (
The Forest of Symbols 106), and his own self-reflexive liminal
strategizing–“I am frankly in the exploratory phase just now” (
From Ritual to Theatre 55)–seem
especially compatible with literary criticism. In fact, he frequently employs literary analogies
and has written various literary critiques of works as diverse as Dante’s
The Divine Comedy,
The Four Zoas, and Islandic saga literature, explaining in detail the relationships between
rites and literature: “Ritual and literature, in a way, are society talking about itself, the
reflexivity of society. . . . each of which is multivocal (susceptible of many meanings),” which
together “represent a statement of the problems, partial solutions, and abiding paradoxes of the
human condition” (
Blazing the Trail 70-71). Writing somewhat in
Turner’s exploratory mode and adopting his boundary-crossing, interdisciplinary, “odd-
bricolage style” (On the Edge 263), I’m sure that I will juggle some of his syncretistic
concepts in the following overview, before turning to our main task of comparative application
Carmilla. But surely that possibility is one of the advantages of a liminal approach where, like
initiates, readers learn to “
play with the factors of culture, sometimes assembling them in
random, grotesque, improbable, surprising, shocking, usually experimental combinations”
From Ritual 40). Or to invoke the related “Farfetching” strategy of Ursula Le Guin’s
interplanetary envoys in
The Left Hand of Darkness, readers should “find expression not in
rational symbols, but in metaphor” (147). As we will see, such an approach does not result in a
completely coherent reading, but in a somewhat incoherent or “monstrous” reading of a
liminally monstrous book like
Carmilla and a liminally monstrous being like Carmilla. As Jeffrey
Jerome Cohen puts it in
Monster Theory, “[t]his examination necessarily involves how the
manifold boundaries . . . that constitute ‘culture’ become imbricated in the construction of the
monster–a category that is itself a kind of limit case, an extreme version of marginalization, an
abjecting epistemological device basic to the mechanics of deviance construction and identity
formation” (viii-ix).

Turner’s “processual anthropology,” which evolved over several decades, monstrously marries
structuralism with post-structuralism or as he calls it, a “multiperspectival” and “‘postmodern
turn’ in anthropology.” In other words, “[t]he plain truth is that I am prejudiced against system-
building, though [also] seduced by it” (
On the Edge 185,181,206). Turner negotiates this marriage
by adopting and adapting the Belgian folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s division of ritual into
stages of separation, limina (Latin for
threshold), and re-aggregation or return in Rites du Passage
(1909), emphasizing the interstructural liminal phase which van Gennep relatively ignores but
which even recalls Le Fanu’s “life” as “an interlude between journeys” (McCormack 263).
Turner “regard[s this] transition as a process, a becoming . . . even a transformation” of
“‘growing’ a girl into a woman” like “a pupa changing from grub to moth” (
Forest 94,101-02),
just as Carmilla liminally posits that “[g]irls are caterpillars while they live in the world, to be
finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime [they] are grubs and larvæ, don’
t you see–each with their peculiar propensities, necessities, and structure” (31).

After becoming separated from structured society and crossing a symbolic threshold into a
“seclusion site” (
Forest 98), novices experience an altered, or better altering, mode of
consciousness since every liminal entrance is
entrancing and fundamentally alters the
participants. Novices also serve under the ancestral guardianship of cultural “instructors”
Forest 99), that is, gatekeeping tricksters or tormenting mentors since, etymologically, the
threshold is the “thrashing place” where pure grain is separated from its inessential husk.
During liminality’s interlude, the social status of neophytes becomes indeterminate, ambiguous,
and “nothing” (
Forest 98) as they are initially debased and humiliated before being
reconstructed as adults and adepts and returned to their culture’s prevailing social structure.
They confront a series of antistructural challenges involving the subjunctive mood of desiring,
fearing, and “it may be this” as opposed to structure’s indicative (“it is this”) and imperative
(“do this”) modalities. In other words, initiates enter the dark
woulds of adventure as Lewis
Carroll’s Gnat puns the term in
Through the Looking-Glass (171).  And mutually sharing this dream
quest awakens genetically-dormant powers, besides creating significant communitas bonds or
“[d]eep friendships between novices” (
Forest 101). Communitas itself engenders a kind of peak
or “flow experience” expressing both an openness to interpersonal relationships (and even
social alliances) and a unity between consciousness and conduct (
From Ritual 55-59). Initiates
learn to interpret a number of
sacra or sacred, “multivocal symbol[s] with a fan of referents”
Forest 107), including lunar phenomena, androgynes, womb-tomb motifs, pictures and other
metatexts, masks, monsters, mirrors, and related “icons representing the journeys of the dead or
the adventures of supernatural beings” (
Forest 103). These sacra lead to “esoteric knowledge or
gnosis [which] is the crux of liminality as it relates to the cultural engendering of personhood,
and revitalization of the social structure” (
Blazing 152). Such retrieved ancestral values
fundamentally define and support the neophytes’ culture, which mesocosmically reflects the
greater “cosmos” in a “complex weave of ‘correspondences’ based on analogy, metaphor and
metonymy” (
From Ritual 29), just as the individual initiate discovers she or he is a microcosm of
these correspondences.

Gustavo Pérez Firmat rightly cautions that liminal “phenomena imbricate to such an extent that
it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss any one of them in isolation” (xiv); and this warning
becomes even more critical when Turner analyzes so-called
liminoid phenomena, which
gradually evolve out of tribal cultures around the period of the mid-nineteenth-century
Industrial Revolution, roughly the composition time of
Carmilla when “in liminality is secreted
the seed of the liminoid” (
From Ritual 44). That is, under the pressures of hardening, if not
petrifying, social structures, the liminal retreats underground; and its energies are displaced
into social and “performative genres” like carnivals, modern pilgrimages, and the novel where
liminal motifs are further blurred and distorted. As the new liminal guardian, the “solitary artist
creates the liminoid phenomena,” and subversive, “revolutionary manifestos–books, plays,
paintings, films, etc., expose the injustices, inefficiencies, and immoralities of the mainstream
economic and political structures and organizations” (
From Ritual 52,54-5). In fact, Turner
considers the liminoid to be the only hope of the modern existential wasteland spawned by the
collapsing dialectic between structure and antistructure: when “religious systems and their
rituals are backed by superior political force and power[,] they tend to lose their ludic
innovativeness and variability”; and “the society thus beset has so much the less adaptive
resilience” (
On the Edge 162-63). In such a “deliminalized” culture, Turner acknowledges that
perpetual or at least prolonged retreat into liminoid antistructuralism may be the only recourse
for the initiatory
outlaw, who refuses to return and capitulate to structural hegemony. And
Turner’s insights here shed some light on the inconclusive conclusion of

But before applying these ideas to Le Fanu’s text, we need to make one final distinction. Turner
often compares and contrasts the liminal motifs in rites of initiation with those in
social dramas
and especially the “life crises” of
rituals of affliction, both of which involve social and cultural
groups rather than individual initiates. Social dramas develop through four stages which seem
quite relevant to
Carmilla, particularly as a postcolonial narrative: “breach of regular norm-
governed social relations”; a
crisis exacerbating the breach; redressive action, which may involve
interpersonal, juridical, political, or religious controls; and either
reintegration of the split-off
factions or “the social recognition and legitimation of
irreparable schism between the contesting
parties” (
On the Edge 180, 197ff.). This sequence seems clearly operative in Carmilla where a
colonizing invader, Carmilla’s mother, breaches the laws of hospitality by inappropriately
inviting her daughter to stay with both General Spielsdorf and Bertha and Laura and her father.
The breach widens when Carmilla violates the young girls; redressive action develops under
the agency of doctors, priests, and aristocratic vampire hunters; and, as we will suggest, the
reader is then left to consider whether reintegration or irreparable schism (and possible
prolonged liminality) ultimately ensues.

Related rituals of affliction, developed to restore cultures ravaged by diseases like   Carmilla’s
colonial cannibalizing–“the mysterious disease that has invaded our neighborhood,” a current
phase of the “plague that has scourged [the region’s] inhabitants for more than a century” (36,77)
–paradoxically invoke “ancestral shades” as forms of homeopathic magic (like cures like): “The
dead also partake of the ambiguous quality of liminality, the state of betwixt-and-betweenness,
for they are associated with both positive and negative processes and objects, with life and
(Blazing 33), as Carmilla’s mother ironically insists that she is “on a mission of life and
death” 62). In fact, these ancestral shades, like both Carmilla and her mother, “are conceived of
as transformative agencies and as mediating between various domains normally classified and
distinct” like the living and the dead (
Blazing 47). In the co-written study Image and Pilgrimage in
Christian Culture
, Turner and his colleague and wife Edith Turner suggestively link pilgrimages,
which “follow the paradigm of the
via crucis,” with these rituals of affliction in which “the agents
of affliction are ancestral shades, who punish their living kin either for moral misdemeanors or
for breach of ritual prescriptions or prohibitions” (9,12). Of course, the way of the cross further
suggests the way of dual-natured crossbreeds like Christ and Carmilla. And pilgrimages
figuratively imply other relevant vampire motifs: “the symbolic or metaphorical death
undergone by initiands or pilgrims puts them in the in-between state of life-in-death, like the
seed with rotting husk but thrusting cotyledon in the ground” (
Blazing 47). On the other hand, a
generationally-affiliated and “therapeutic [affliction] ritual is [also] a rite of passage which
transforms the patient [like Laura] into an adept ready to learn the mysteries of the healing cult”
(Turner and Turner 12) and which provocatively qualifies any facile solving of
Carmilla’s final

We will return to these issues in what follows as we develop the liminal roles of thresholds,
neophytes, guardians, antistructure, communitas,
sacra, and gnosis in the text. Suffice it to say
here that symptomatic Irish “troubles” and Anglo-Irish conflicts, which are subtly displaced
Carmilla, also seem suggested, if not mediated (or left unresolved), by Turner’s social
dramas and rituals of affliction. And Le Fanu’s titular ancestral shade, the “figure of Carmilla”–
whether colonizer or colonized–paradoxically provides the liminal clue to this (ir)resolution,
just as James Joyce’s possibly pregnant, prostitute-madonna figure of Ireland in
Portrait of the
, the “batlike soul” who attempts “to draw [Davin] over the threshold” in his personal folk
tale, vicariously captivates Stephen Dedalus with her similar paradoxes:

The last words of Davin’s story sang in his memory and the figure of the woman in the story stood forth,
reflected in other figures of the peasant women whom he had seen standing in the doorways at Clane as
the college cars drove by, as a type of her race and his own, a batlike soul waking to the consciousness of
itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness and, through the eyes and voice and gesture of a woman
without guile, calling the stranger to her bed (182-83).

From the “drawbridge,” “gate,” and “steep Gothic bridge” suggestively crossing “a stream that
winds in deep shadow through the wood” (1-2) at
Carmilla’s opening, through the succession of
doors, arches, and windows, “gateway symbols” or liminal thresholds (
Blazing 32) dominate the
tale. And these thresholds represent its self-reflexive, explicit (“Gothic bridge”) and implicit
(“deep shadow”) Gothicism besides its related connotations of flowing, rather than frozen,
antistructural subjunctivity (“through the wood”). Appropriately, the drawbridge and gate rest
on the margin of “this lonely and primitive place” (1), ritual’s liminally charged “seclusion site”
which Dean Le Fanu, the novelist’s father, also created for his family in unruly County Limerick
as he “drew up his ladder for seclusion” when civil “commotion at the gates announced the
aroused antagonism” of his congregation (McCormack 71). According to Turner, such Janus-
faced openings “give an outward and visible form to an inward and conceptual process.” Put
slightly differently, the ambiguity between inside(rs) and outside(rs) signifies liminality’s
repeated “coincidence of opposite processes and notions in a single representation” (
96,99). It may then support McCormack’s point that “Le Fanu [himself] presented a Janus-like
ambiguity” (224) in his (post)colonial attitudes toward Anglo-Irish hybridity or Margot Gayle
Backus’s argument that “Carmilla, while seemingly an external invader, is actually an insider
masquerading as an outsider” (131). Jack Sullivan maintains that “[a]mbivalence is the
controlling principle throughout the story” (64). And reader ambivalence is often registered in
response to the liminal pun on threshold
passages: whether “those secret [architectural] passages . .
. known to exist in the schloss” (46); the subliminal rites of passage Laura endures–“the ordeal
through which I was unconsciously passing” (23); or
Carmilla's own literary passages which
become incantatory
rites de passage for Le Fanu’s mesmerized reader, “looking like a person in a
trance” at every symbolic “entrance and . . . exit” (66,76).

As indicated earlier, thresholds play comparable roles in
Dracula and Christabel. In the former,
Van Helsing recites the fundamental liminal rule that had become so critical in the latter: no
demonic outsider can “enter anywhere at first, unless there be some one of the household who
bid him come; though afterwards he can come as he please” (308). Consequently, the host’s
initial invitation to the parasite proves crucial in Christabel’s accepting the burden of hospitality
to the lady Geraldine:

The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate (ll.129-32).

When Laura’s trusted guardian Madame Perrodon similarly bears Carmilla over the threshold
to the schloss–“The stranger now rose, and leaning on Madame’s arm, walked slowly over the
drawbridge and into the castle gate”(14)–it betokens not only an uncanny coincidence of the
familiar and strange and host and parasite, but also the related Lacanian suggestion that
Otherness is, indeed, the discourse of the unconscious, which intrapsychic reading (of all three
works) Van Helsing has already implied. In other words, to invite the demon over the threshold
is a subliminal acknowledgment of the demon within, a kind of deconstructive inside-outside-
the-outside gesture which extends James Walton’s insight regarding “Le Fanu’s inveterate
interest in doubles, dual identities, divided selves” (66).

The fact that it is Carmilla who crosses the threshold from what Victorians called “the other
side” also signifies her self-identification with the initiate Laura in what Trumbull again terms
“the covenant of union” (35). And if the threshold is the thrashing place, then Laura, later
wounded, must shed her culturally constructed outer shell here and discover her Karnstein
affiliation with Carmilla since for Turner, all such liminal wounds are wombs of self-renewal.
Laura initially insists that the castle’s “drawbridge” was “never raised in my time” (1), but
Carmilla “always lock[s her] door” (19), suggesting  her closure of liminal openness and even of
female birth passages since such thresholds often bear uterine implications (
Blazing 32). On the
other hand, Laurence A. Rickels notes that “
Schloss also means a ‘lock.’ So the resources of this
castle are also at the same time the resources of locking up” (162), which may balance Carmilla’s
association with anti-liminal energies. Still, her performative opening and shutting of doors (and
immaterializing through walls), like her “ambiguous alternations–sometimes the playful,
languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend” (83), link Carmilla with Turner’s
“multivocal symbols” and so herald a crisis of representation since she seems simultaneously to
be an initiate, a guardian, and a sacral monster. Nevertheless, as Nancy Auerbach argues in an
uncanny, non-liminal way, “[t]he opening door is the key to this vampire. . . . Laura’s Carmilla
may be strange, but her face and the sensations she arouses are indelibly familiar, and her body
is as material as a door” (
Our Vampires, Ourselves 45).

When General Spielsdorf describes his meeting with Millarca and her mother at the masquerade
ball, he confides, “It was a very aristocratic assembly. I was myself almost the only ‘nobody’
present” (58); and his emphatic
nobody identifies the invisible status of ritualized and
mythologized initiates, though their humbled way of negation paradoxically also provides
positive potential for their eventual reconstruction. In Turner’s words, “[p]ossibly the best
approach to the problem of cracking the code of myth is the
via negativa represented by the
liminal phase in initiation rites” (“Myth and Symbol” 578). In fact, Spielsdorf and Laura’s father,
who develop a degree of communitas while coping with Carmilla’s antistructuralism, could be
considered neophytes themselves. But their transitioning, triggered by their entranced
fascination with the succubus and terminating in their performance of subjunctivity in
destroying her, is more like the liminality of midlife “journeyers” discussed by Murray Stein:
“journeyers, or floaters, feel ghostlike, even to themselves . . . they avoid social commitments
and obligations, evade responsibility, duck out, drift off, hide, vanish. . . . in liminality the soul
is awakened and released, so it happens during this transitional period a person is led . . . into
psychological regions that are otherwise unknown, inaccessible, or forbidden.” The midlifer
“shakes free as well from the somnolent effects of psychological habits, patterns, and
identifications” such as the General’s initial structuralism and Laura’s father’s rationalized
sleepwalking solution to the mystery of Carmilla’s disappearance, which ironically suggests
that he has been one of life’s sleepwalkers in trying to deal rationally with the vampire. In    
Stein’s analysis, Le Fanu’s succubus thus becomes one of midlife’s “soul figures” signifying
“vast subjective meanings and carry[ing] projections of the archetypal unconscious” (136-37).

Even Carmilla, especially on first reading, may seem a novice who compares herself to a “nun”
(37) and says her “story” is “one of bewilderment and darkness. I know absolutely nothing”
(48). The “darkness” metaphor proves particularly telling since humiliated initiates are often
associated with elemental dirt and darkness during their symbolic death. The darkness,
however, eventually becomes a “fruitful darkness” (
Forest 110), while the dirt recalls the
“hideous black woman” (15) Matska in the carriage with Carmilla, whose name means
(Andriano 102), which “primal matrix” Barbara Babcock also relevantly links with the initiating
process (93,97). The trinity of Carmilla, her mother, and Matska does imply some archetypal
version of the maiden-mother-crone stages of female development, which William Veeder terms
the “virgin-mother-witch trio” (215). Turner believed that etymology represents the dream past
of words; and as farfetched as it may seem,  the “core” syllable in
Carmilla, Karnstein, and Corra,
the Celtic monster we’ll discuss later, not only suggests Kore/Persephone but also Greek
“chora,” the semiotic “strange space” which Julia Kristeva associates with pre-oedipal
“receptacle[s]” that dismantle symbolic structures  in borderline personalities (14) like Laura’s.
Turner might further link chora with the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone and
“the mythical and archetypal midwife” in liminal inflections of “matrilineage” so important in
rituals of affliction (
Forest 102,104) like that performed in Laura’s culture.

Surely, though, Laura herself is Le Fanu’s primary initiate. Carmilla’s embraces even transfigure
her  “into a trance from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms”
(22). And just as surely the Invisible Prince, whose “imminent fate” in chaotic County Limerick
seemed to be “an existential nullity in which society could proceed without the slightest
reference to [his] being” and whose wife Susanna suffered “visions and trances” (McCormack
46,232), could empirically identify and empathize with such neophyte conditions. Further, when
Veeder calls Laura “everyperson” and argues that she “remains the adolescent caught between
stages” (199,219), he, in effect, implies the universality of the liminal neophyte which Laura
personifies. Her life is riddled with paradoxes and negations–“I bear an English name, although
I never saw England” (1)–and recalling Le Fanu’s novel
A Lost Name (1868), she remains
anonymous for sixty percent of the text like all “novices’ being stripped of names” (
From Ritual
44). Besides having a mixed Anglo-Austrian genealogy, she speaks “a Babel” (3) with her would-
be guardians, a hybrid kind of German-French-English creolized tongue echoing “the use of
archaic or secret language” employed “during the liminal stages of initiation rituals” (
136). Like Coleridge’s Christabel, Laura is also marginalized at a “seclusion site,” though
Gregory Waller sees her isolated condition “in a world of [her father’s] making that seeks to
exclude sexuality and maturity” (52) as her psychological burden, rather than liminality’s
potential blessing. In any event, since Laura has been “studiously kept in ignorance of ghost
stories, or fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door creeks
suddenly” (3), she initially possesses no sacral metatexts to help her pass through liminal
thresholds. Still, entranced and visionary (like Susanna Le Fanu) after Carmilla’s attack during
her childhood, Laura’s borderline memories “stand out vivid as the isolated pictures of the
phantasmagoria surrounded by darkness,” while Carmilla’s more recent assaults even suggest
Laura’s purgatorial “descent of Avernus” (5,43). And Le Fanu’s telling image recalls “Orphic
cults with their emphasis on symbolic descent into the underworld, the movement of souls in
transmigration from body to body [that] was perhaps the mystery cult which most stressed the
generative character of midliminality” (
Blazing 154-55).

As hybrid character-narrator, Laura’s reported interview with a vampire–even intercourse with a
vampire–also reflects her initiatory non-status and, like Carmilla’s doubling testimony, must
surely be read with a grain of suspicion. For example, when Laura “saw very gladly the
beautiful face and figure of Carmilla” as the vampire crossed the threshold into the graveyard,
the narration reaches its loudest unreliable pitch since Laura has just heard General Spielsdorf’s
(at this point) unimpeachable, sacral story of how Carmilla-Millarca murdered his “ward”
Bertha (59). As Margaret Carter generally writes, “Two factors, the distortion of memory and
Laura’s affection for Carmilla, allow the reader to question this narrator’s reliability” (36). Still,
Laura’s attraction to Carmilla–she asks, “Are we related[?]” (23)–also suggests a matrilineal
relationship besides several other liminal ties.  And the next neophyte in line, the often-
forgotten “town lady” whose “earnest desire so repeatedly expressed” her wish to hear Laura’s
tale (24,79-80) like some more than willing Wedding Guest, personifies the structured status of
Laura’s latter-day readers who stand in liminal line to hear her tale and self-reflect on its gnosis.
As Wolfgang Iser cogently argues (with no acknowledgment of a liminal context), “self-
disclosed fictionality as an act of boundary-crossing causes the [reader’s] natural attitude to be
doubled by a new one that is demanded of him or her, while the world of the text is doubled by
that from which it has been bracketed off, and whose reverse side is thereby brought to the fore”
(272). And thus Laura’s initiating tale serves as a sacred metatext for reader-novices, just as
General Spielsdorf’s serves as one for neophyte Laura.

In liminal cultures, guardians or mentors function as relatively stable educators in tribal lore; in
liminoid cultures with their performative genres, on the other hand, guardians often transform
into amorphous, shape-shifting tricksters or tormentors who may seem much more subversive
than the ritual mentors of yore. Most commentators either find that the “male elders” in
“tend to merge into one” (Walton 68) or see “the fathers, priests, and doctors who are the story’s
male ‘knowers’” as “hordes of male authorities” (Heller 80,89) trying to eradicate female
knowledge. From a liminal perspective, however, General Spielsdorf, Doctor Spielsberg, and
the playful, hunchbacked “mountebank” proficient in “the art of dentistry” (28-29) appear to be
more authentic guardians than the other “male authorities” as they correctly interpret the
“extraordinary evidence” of “a preternatural conspiracy” (56). German
Spiel means play, and
Spielsdorf and Spielsberg, almost by virtue of their names’ shared ludic etymology, juggle the
clues and identify Carmilla as a vampire. In legend, hunchbacks wield magical powers–
hunchback Punch outplays both Death and the Devil–and Le Fanu’s mountebank “showing his
white fangs” (27) also resembles the prototypical “clown character” with “‘a hump back [and]
protruding teeth’” famous in the lore of India (
On the Edge 238). Turner has even discussed the
“flashing of teeth” motif as part of the playful “pedagogics of liminality” (
The Ritual Process 104-
05) in which a laughing approach to life, like the mountebank’s “merry discord,” conquers all
adversaries. And the motley mountebank, “dressed in buff, black, and scarlet,” carrying
“masks,” and familiar with all sorts of “monsters” (27-28), plays a kind of pattering harlequin
who sells Laura and Carmilla a sacral “medicine-bundle” (
On the Edge 235) or “amulet against
the oupire.” He even volunteers to defang Carmilla after recognizing her “sharpest tooth,–long,
thin, pointed, like an awl, like a needle; ha, ha!” (28-29), as if his laughing “white fangs” can
outlast her lustful, violent ones. And, obviously, the mountebank’s all-encompassing laughter
provides a much more effective liminal pedagogy than Laura’s patronizing, skeptical father’s
“laughing very heartily” at her “nursery” story of being attacked as a child, just as she
anticipates “he would laugh at my story” of Carmilla’s more recent violations (4-5,40).

Of course, maternal guardians, like Madame Perrodon, “whose care and good nature in part
supplied to me the loss of my mother” (2), also appear in
Carmilla; but few, if any, seem at first  
liminally significant, though Matska’s “grinning derisively” (like the mountebank) after the
carriage accident is suggestive. Carmilla’s first communication, “the clear, long-drawn screams
of a female voice” (10), does appear to argue for the power of Kristeva’s pre-oedipal and pre-
structural, semiotic register over symbolic structures. And Carmilla’s  first words, “Where is
mamma?” (13), employ rational discourse to suggest the irrational
chora or female receptacle,
which Turner might contextualize as the liminal “obligation to perpetuate the matrilineage and
links entailed in the relationships between particular categories of matrilineal kin belonging to .
. . the ‘womb group,’ descended lineally from a specific woman through female links” (
20). Carol Senf relevantly reads the text in terms of Le Fanu’s alleged mother complex, which, of
course, proves unprovable: “Because she was a social activist and a woman of some power both
within the family and outside it, Le Fanu’s mother may have been a source of his interest in the
power that women have” (27). Whatever the source, Carmilla’s matrilineal line, which Laura,
“maternally descended from the Karnsteins” (56), shares, appears liminally ambiguous, almost
as if the seventeenth-century Countess Mircalla Karnstein, a.k.a. Carmilla, mothers herself, or
even creates her own mother. An intrapsychic reading, again emphasizing female development
from caterpillar through chrysalis to butterfly (
psyche), might explain this paradox better than
Carmilla’s vampire logic, that is, her ability to materialize, dematerialize, and shape-shift.  
Laura’s own birth mother, like Christabel’s, also provides a cautionary tale–“Your mother warns
you to beware of the assassin” (44).  This critical caution is usually interpreted as a warning
against Carmilla; and yet, juggling possibilities, we could also argue that the should-be
“assassin” of both Laura and liminality would be antiquated, hyper-structural systematizers
like the (patrilineal) rationalists and priestly zealots (robed in black like the vampire’s
henchmen) fighting for their lives in
Carmilla by strictly “proceeding . . . according to law” (69).
As Turner writes, “If law and/or religious values have lost their cultural efficacy, endemic
continuous factionalism may infect public life for long periods” (
On the Edge 292).

In any event, Carmilla herself, a “tormentor” who can “play [a] cruel trick” (70,46), performs the
various liminal roles of tormenting mentor and trickster most successfully in the text. And as Le
Fanu’s Lady of the Limen, she closely resembles Turner’s representative trickster figure, the
Lord of the Limen and two-headed crossroads and graveyard guardian, the west African Exu:

one face is that of Christ, the other Satan’s. Exu, whose ritual colors are black and red, is the Lord of the
Limen and of Chaos, the full ambiguity of the subjunctive mood of culture, representing the indeterminacy
that lurks in the cracks and crevices of all socio-cultural “constructions of reality,” the one who must be
kept at bay if the framed formal order of the ritual proceedings is to go forward according to protocol. He
is the abyss of possibility; hence his two heads, for he is both potential savior and tempter (
From Ritual 77).

Carmilla’s cross-sexual tendencies resemble the trickster’s (Laura even wonders “if a boyish
lover had found his way into the house,” 23); and vampires are notoriously androgynous,
penetrating flesh but receiving body fluid in return, besides transforming into theriomorphic
creatures like the “sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat” (39) as tricksters also do.
More significantly like a liminal guardian, Carmilla questions Laura’s cultural structures, “how
can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me” (25); and she
dialogically critiques Laura’s “faithful creator”: “Creator!
Nature!” before preaching passionately
on behalf of the Demiurge: “All things proceed from Nature. . . . All things in the heaven, in the
earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains” (30). Such subversive gnostic
correspondences, in heaven as it is on earth, often occur in the liminal pedagogy of mentoring
tricksters who work playfully “to turn boys into men and girls into women” (
From Ritual 32) as
they behave like Carmilla: “destructive, creative, farcical, ironic, energetic, suffering, lecherous,
submissive, defiant, but always unpredictable” (“Myth and Symbol” 580).

Turner describes the next liminal motif, antistructure, as a kind of
mundus inversus or “topsy-
turveydom” (
From Ritual 42), “the critical and potentially creative destructuration [sic] of . . .
order” signified by the “perilous personal journeys in everyone’s life from one brightly lighted
familiar area (and set of habits) to another, through a medial darkness of liminality, illuminated
only by the candles of guesswork and mythological speculation” (
Blazing 148,132). This
“perilous personal journey” seems much like what twelve-year-old Le Fanu experienced when
his father, “a chaplain to a military establishment, surrounded by the pomp of the Williamite
constitution” at Phoenix Park near Dublin, moved his family south to Abington, “a parish on the
borders of counties Limerick and Tipperary, on the edge of the Slieve Felim mountains,” a truly
liminal area which Thackeray described as antistructurally “black, ruinous, swarming, dark,
hideous” (McCormack 17-18,20). In this context, Laura seems to personify Le Fanu’s alter-ego as
“the novice [who] is borne off to a newly made seclusion hut on the margin of the village, where
she will undergo liminal instruction by female elders for many months, before ‘coming out’ in a
ritual which is also the precursor of her marriage” (
On the Edge 271). Significant signs of
antistructure facing Laura include the “scene of utter confusion” during Carmilla’s carriage
accident (which Tammis Thomas says “‘overturns’ many expected [cultural] patterns” 48) with
its “two wheels in the air” and the horses freed from their “traces” (11);  “the great, palpitating
mass” (73) which attacks Laura in her bedroom; and  “the Ruins of Karnstein” (56) to which she
finally journeys and which suggest a kind of cultural, if not cosmic entropy. Misleadingly, “the
carriage was replaced in its upright position, and the horses, quite tractable, in the traces again”
(12), as if antistructure has retreated and structure has been safely restored. Like some viscous
Lovecraftian monster, Carmilla’s slimy “mass” metaphysically deconstructs Newtonian physics,
anticipating Hurley’s point that slime “is a liminal phenomenon” which “testifies to the inability
of human classificatory systems to contain and master matter” (35-36). And “the Ruins,”
innocuously foreshadowed at the tale’s opening, later become the necropolis inhabited by Laura’
s ancestral shade who seems both the alpha and the omega of
Carmilla. No wonder Laura, like
Bertha, suffers “appalling dreams” (67) in her serially long, dark nights of the soul during each
“stage of [her] malady,” which antistructurally  “discoloured and perverted the whole state of
[her] life” (42). Whether it is considered a psychomachia, theomachia, or even cosmomachia,
Laura must learn to reconcile the struggle between structure and antistructure, between the
politico-religious “law” of vampire-slayers (69) and the “ghostly law” compelling “vampires to
increase and multiply” (82) in mockery of the biblical injunction. As Turner would say, she must
discover the creative side of chaos in order to create a new cosmos, a more functional, brave new
world for herself and her culture.

Neophytes can learn to accommodate antistructural rhythms by practicing subjunctivity: “one
would have to reckon liminal processes subjunctive . . . , for they represent
alternatives to the
positive [and indicative] systems of economic, legal, and political action operating in everyday
life” (
On the Edge 164). In fact, “we may perhaps trace the grammatical mood to a cultural mood,
a mode of thought to a mode of action. Ritual liminality, containing sacrifice and stressing
wishes and vows, here seems to underlie a grammatical mode of framing language” (
134). The centrality of sacrifice suggests not only surrendering old cultural habits and prejudices
during liminality, but also ultimately giving up liminality itself for a return to structure’s
indicative securities–though perpetual liminality would completely sacrifice structure, while a
social drama’s act of reintegration would tend to resolve the two modalities. And these
alternatives are central to
Carmilla as the vampire’s “mysterious moods” (22) might suggest.
Sometimes Le Fanu typographically emphasizes the subjunctive mood as when Carmilla’s
mother tells General Spielsdorf that “on reflection” ( a crucial interval of liminality as we will
see) he “
should suspect, who I am” (64). More crucially, when Doctor Spielsberg suspects that
Laura has been infected by the Undead, and is supported by a colleague’s letter, the “coulds,”
“woulds,” “shoulds,” “mays,” and “mights” proliferate until the emphatic conclusion: “there
could be no doubt” that “the patient was suffering from the visits of a vampire!” (72).

We should note here the subjunctive motif of
sparagmos or dismemberment which for Turner
suggests not only personal sacrifice and individual scapegoating, but also “the decomposition
of ritual” or surrender of common liminal energies for more specialized “liminoid genres” or
arts and, ultimately, the greater cultural good in modern societies (
Blazing 153,56). Similar to
sparmagos is Derrida’s etymological wordplay with the closely synonymous concepts of
pharmakon and pharmakos, whose grammatological function as “writing supplement[s]” to initial
rhetorical logic seems particularly relevant to the “figure of Carmilla” and related notions of
grammatical modes, sacrifice, and double narratives and even
chiasmus (see both below). Like
pharmakon can connote both a poison and a cure, but particularly “a housebreaker,
threatening some internal purity and security” (128), while
pharmakos, again like Carmilla, can
suggest “a scapegoat” or a “wizard, magician, poisoner.” And the “ceremony of the
is liminally “played out on the boundary line between inside and outside, which it has as its
function ceaselessly to trace and retrace” (128130,133).  This liminal “rite of the
pharmakos” is a
kind of “ghost-writ[ing]” (134) like Carmilla’s shady doubling of her illuminated victims in the
original illustrations to
Carmilla: her benighted “figure” represents not just a supplement or
“after thought,” but also the prelogical, “original” darkness. Reversing the “figure” again,
pharmakos “parasites” were also “domesticated by the living organism that housed them at its
expense” (133) as the hospitable hosts General Spielsdorf and Laura’s father house the parasitic

Veeder has argued that “Le Fanu uses various stylistic devices which provide some of the finest
pleasures in ‘Carmilla’” (200), and many of these also contribute to the tale’s subjunctivity. For
example, Laura finally recognizes Carmilla’s name game in which the vampire
“anagrammatically” plays with
Carmilla, Millarca, and Mircalla (81), recalling that among “the
‘instructions’ received by neophytes may be reckoned . . . the revelation of the real, but secularly
secret, names of the deities or spirits” (
Forest 103). Walton has suggested that Le Fanu employs a
kind of figurative “chiasmus” to choreograph “Laura’s relations with Carmilla” (67); but Le
Fanu likewise deploys rhetorical chiasmus to reflect their self-mirroring identities–“I you and
you me” (18) as Carmilla asserts–which further implies the playfully “crossed connection-
making” or “chiasmus . . . authorized, even prescribed, by the ambivalence of the
(Derrida 127). In
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic
doppelgänger tale, he memorably double-crosses rhetorical chiasmus when Jekyll tries to disown
his double: “He, I say–I cannot say, I” (94); and Le Fanu similarly modifies the trope to stress his
doubles’ double consanguinity of common bloodlines and bloody transfers. In Carmilla’s
words, “as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others,” though in this same
paragraph she revamps the yoking even further: “I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die,
sweetly die–into mine” (22). Le Fanu uses wordplay for the same effect when Laura
compulsively repeats
grave in connection with the response of Spielsberg,“the grave little
doctor,” to her mysterious malady: “I told him my story, and as I proceeded he grew graver and
graver” (50). Finally, Le Fanu emphasizes the intersubjectivity between Laura and Carmilla by
having them repeatedly recount the same experiences so that their stories bleed into one
another. This kind of subjunctive narrative doubling becomes most critical after Laura hears the
General’s account of Bertha’s violation and subsequent “unconsciousness”: “You may guess
how strangely I felt as I heard my own symptoms so exactly described” (67), which guessing
game also doubles the lady in town with the extratextual reader.

In the later stages of his career, Turner turned his interdisciplinary attentions toward three new
liminal areas: performance genres (which we have seen), pilgrimages (which we will see), and
neurobiological triune-brain studies (which are relevant to antistructure). Dr. Hesselius’s “tract
The Cardinal Functions of the Brain” in “Green Tea” somewhat previews these studies, at least
in its analogous concern with “the interior sense” or “inner eye” of  “nerves” interconnected by
“fluid” that “is spiritual, though not immaterial, any more than . . . light or electricity are so” (
a Glass Darkly
38-39). Turner is interested in “the ‘limen’ or threshold between the” left-lobe,
indicative-mood hemisphere and the right-lobe, subjunctive-mood hemisphere and cautions
against any “left hemispheric hegemony, if not imperialism.”  He seems most preoccupied,
however, with “the archaic brain stem, the limbic system” of primitive emotions, containing
ancestral mammalian and reptilian instinctual deposits, which liminality unleashes and which,
for Turner, validate Carl Jung’s concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious (
On the
288,282-83,270-71). P. Broca discovered the limbic system in 1878, and Bram Stoker seems
to dramatize its subjunctive power when Jonathan Harker doubles his liminal tormentor by
scuttling up and down the walls of Castle Dracula “in his lizard fashion” (70). Coleridge’s
Christabel, on the other hand, suggests that art can preview science when she, “[s]huddering
aloud with a hissing sound” (l.591), imitates her loathly mate, the serpent-woman Geraldine.
Yeats’s Crazy Jane relevantly advises the Bishop:

“Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,” I cried.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent” (“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” ll.7-8,17-18).

Le Fanu’s Laura has been “rent,” but not yet made “whole” because her rite of passage hasn’t
activated her limbic powers. She does repeatedly feel that “restless and unscrupulous passion”
of “curiosity” and “ardently desired to know” Carmilla (21), but unlike Christabel and Harker,
Laura never imitates Carmilla’s “power of the hand”–a sure “sign of the vampire” (82)–unless
one counts her powerful handwritten narrative. The closest Laura comes to identifying with
Carmilla is “a paradox,” that is, a “conscious[ness] of a love growing into adoration, [but] also of
abhorrence”; and so even ten years later, as we’ve partially heard, “Carmilla returns to memory
with ambiguous alternations–sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the
writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church” (23,83). Nevertheless, perhaps this admitted
moodiness becomes the limbic mark of Laura’s subjunctive at-onement and a clue to the only
kind of intrapsychic openness initiates can achieve in a liminoid culture. As the Jungian James
Hillman suggestively explains, “familiarity [with one’s dream world] after some time produces
in one a sense of at-homeness and at-oneness with an inner family which is nothing else than
kinship and community with oneself, a deep level of what can also be called the blood soul”

“Kinship and community” preview communitas, or lasting friendships among novices, which
springs from antistructural “flow” as theorized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in
Beyond Boredom
and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games
, “where action and awareness are one and
there is loss of the sense of ego” (Turner,
The Anthropology of Performance 107). The “loss of the
sense of ego” or caution against left-hemispheric “imperialism,” which Turner emphasizes, is
essential not only in egalitarian liminal rituals, but also in achieving postcolonial communitas
as suggested, perhaps, by Ascendancy Protestant Le Fanu’s “lasting friendship with Patrick
Kennedy,” who “was a Catholic of humble origins with whom Le Fanu worked in complete
harmony until death claimed them both” in 1873 (McCormack 238). At any rate, Turner sees
communitas as “the
fons et origo of all structures and, at the same time, their critique. For its very
existence puts all social structural rules in question and suggests new possibilities.”
Furthermore, in an overly structured society like General Spielsdorf and Laura’s father’s,
members of the lonely crowd “can go crazy because of communitas-repression; sometimes
people become obsessively structural as a defense mechanism against their urgent need of
communitas” (Turner,
Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors 202,266). Laura exclaims, “You, who live in
towns, can have no idea how great an event the introduction of a new friend is, in such a
solitude as surrounded us” (16); but the fact remains that townspeople, like the majority of Le
Fanu’s readers, require communitas as much as those in rural cultures. Laura’s father and the
General “have been very old friends” (57); nevertheless, their friendship grows much more
intimate and honest during their brief pilgrimage to Carmilla’s shrine, documenting that “the
original ardor and communitas” of medieval pilgrimages “persists” into modern times (Turner
and Turner 26). Laura herself has had only “two or three [occasional] lady friends” (3) so that
when Bertha Rheinfeldt dies before her intended visit, it deprives Laura of potential
communitas bonding, except with the false friend Carmilla, who represents a mocking return of
the repressed relationship. Laura does, however, eventually seem to develop a true
communitas exchange with her designated reader, the town lady, a surrogate for all readers who
must then respond to Laura’s text with self-revealing openness.

Calling Carmilla a “false friend,” at least in terms of communitas, takes issue with Auerbach’s
feminist readings of
Carmilla as a Victorian testament to the “its century’s dream of homoerotic
friendship”: “The female vampire is licensed to realize the homosexual, interpenetrative
implications of the friendship male vampires aroused and denied” (“My Vampire, My Friend”
12,11). But Auerbach does recognize a kind of subjunctive “flow” dimension within female
human-vampire friendships: “In the flow of female dreams, murderer and murdered, mother
and lover, are one; women in
Carmilla merge into a union the men who watch them never see”
Our Vampires, Ourselves 43). Turner describes authentic communitas as “intersubjective
illumination” (
From Ritual 48) characterized by “familiarity, ease and, . . .  mutual
outspokenness” (
Forest 101), besides “personal honesty, openness, and lack of pretentions or
pretentiousness” (
From Ritual 48), whereas Laura complains of Carmilla’s “wakeful reserve,”
lack of “trust in my good sense or honour,” and her “utter failure” (21-22) at any honest
disclosure. During the masquerade, Carmilla simulates being “very good friends” with her
intended victim Bertha by “lower[ing] her mask,” but ironically this gesture reveals only a false
facade, “a remarkably beautiful face” (60), at least to the seduced General. With the help of
Baron Vordenburg, Laura later understands that vampires are “prone to be fascinated with an
engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons” with whom they
develop a kind of intense, co-dependent relationship until the “coveted victim” (81) becomes an
earth-covered victim like Bertha. Such a “friendship” is false not because it appears homoerotic,
but rather because it involves deceit and betrayal and not true communitas. Having argued this
way, I must still admit that we again face a crisis of representation here with the “figure of
Carmilla” who, like Frankenstein’s Creature, “realistically” functions as a serial killer, but
whose “figurative” meaning, whether involving lesbian friendship or liminal flow, remains up
to the individual reader’s critical imagination. And so Susan Broadhurst’s general comment
about the “retriev[al of liminal participants’] chthonic identity by direct corporeal insertion in
the creative act” (170) could support Laura’s passionate relationship with Carmilla.

At the conclusion of Le Fanu’s
Uncle Silas (1864), Maud Ruthyn recites the gnostic,
Swedenborgian creed that, arguably, informs the entire novel, “This world is a parable–the
habitation of symbols–the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape”
(436). When Victor Turner discusses “nonlogical
sacra,” which provide “the symbolic template
of the whole system of beliefs and values in a given culture,” he likewise discovers “an
embarrassment of symbolic riches” in the very “heart of the liminal matter” (
Forest 108-09,102).
We have already seen how sacra like wounds and androgynes operate in
Carmilla, and so here
we will focus on monsters, womb-tomb motifs, lunar and other natural imagery, sacral
metatexts, and mirrors.

Turner discusses how mentors provide “esoteric instruction” in the “recombination [of cultural
factors] in fantastic or monstrous patterns and shapes” since “[m]onsters are unfamiliar
combinations of familiar elements” (
Forest 106; Blazing 153) like the hybrid “hippogriffs” (31) the
mountebank mentions and the “monstrous cat” Carmilla transformatively “resemble[s]” (39). As
a member of the living-dead, Carmilla of course, represents the most significant hybrid monster;
and as an initially unplayful personification of social structure, General Spielsdorf is hell-bent to
“relieve our earth of certain monsters” (56) because they
demonstrate (note the common
etymology) promiscuous mixtures that culture’s categorizing taxonomies can never classify but
only murder to dissect. As Keats concludes when Apollonius exorcizes the mysterious Lamia
with logic-chopping, structural analysis:

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine–
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade (
Lamia II:ll.234-238).

Such monstrous mixtures actually encompass all natural phenomena, including the human,
whether Anglo-Irish, right hemispheric-left hemispheric, or betwixt-and-between initiates. And
Turner’s comments seem most applicable to Anglo-Irish (if not vampire-human) affinities:
“culture, as discriminatory, would seem to reject the unity of nature, if indeed, the inter-
breeding capability of different human stocks would indicate natural affinity” (
On the Edge 231).
Again, Carmilla, “liminality incarnate,” herself personifies such mixtures as Lee suggests: “The
vampire as animated corpse, material death circulating among the living, and liminality
incarnate is a figure
characterized by its equivocal, composite nature” (31). The most critical
womb-tomb motif is
Bertha’s death, which sacrificially serves as what Mikhail Bakhtin would
call a “pregnant death, a death that gives birth” (25) for Laura since the General’s cautionary tale
saves Laura’s life, while also signifying that stadial (in stages) development, as in Blake’s
Four Zoas
, requires the death of each preliminary stage before the next can be successively born,
only to sacrifice itself someday. Both initiations and pilgrimages feature this kind of “liminality
. . . [as] a death-birth or a birth-death” (
Blazing 32).

The text’s rampant lunar symbolism suggests the same kind of life-through-death cycle, though
in a perhaps more mystical way. Mademoiselle De Lafontaine, who like her interdisciplinary
father aspired “to be psychological, metaphysical, and something of a mystic,” delivers a lunar
sermon to Laura on the full moon shining with “a special spiritual activity” upon Carmilla’s
“twilight” arrival. Indeed, the “effect of the full moon in such a state of brilliancy was manifold.
It acted on dreams, it acted on lunacy, it acted on nervous people; it had marvellous physical
influences connected with life” (8,9). For Tamar Heller, the moon signifies “the female menstrual
cycle” and the “inevitable tide of female nervousness and hysteria” (82), which Carmilla
transfers to adolescent Laura. More universally, the sacral moon suggests a “full” or total
personality, the gnostic goal of liminal rites. In fact, other natural phenomena in the text, like the
“undulating expanse of forest” (67) which surrounds the Karnstein Ruins and which resembles
the “palpitating” monster Carmilla, signify the same mixed and flowing truth. And such sacral
paradigms of transformative becoming rather than structural stasis are also signified by the
topography leading up to Carmilla’s secret shrine and complemented by Laura’s lapse into the
continuous action of the historical present: “The ground breaks into gentle hills and hollows, all
clothed with beautiful wood, totally destitute of the comparative formality which artificial
planting and early culture and pruning impart” (54). Suggestively, Turner cites Jung again in
reading such “natural phenomena” as sacral projections of liminal development: “they are
symbolic expressions of the inner and unconscious psychic drama that becomes accessible to
human consciousness by projection–that is, by being mirrored in the events of nature” (“Myth
and Symbol” 579). Raised to a corresponding cultural or even cosmic level, the ominously
“fading crimson of the sky,” plus the four horsemen accompanying Carmilla’s carriage and the

’s ultimate identification as “the beast” (7,10,82), portend the advent of some apocalyptic
upheaval, some “twilight” of contemporary gods and the return of much older ones.

Turner also nominates various kinds of interpolated metatexts as sacra so that, for example, the
General’s early letter announcing Bertha’s death left Laura and her father “speculating upon the
possible meanings of the violent and incoherent sentences” (8), just as
Carmilla’s uninitiated
reader engages in the same kind of speculative juggling of interpretive possibilities of the
whole text. Readers may also speculate on Laura’s father’s unidentified citation of Antonio’s
opening speech in
The Merchant of Venice (9-10). He leaves the quotation liminally unfinished
and so omits the next lines which clarify both Antonio’s present, and Laura’s future, weary
“sadness,” besides her goal of self-knowledge: “What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,/I am
to learn;/And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,/That I have much ado to know myself” (I:i,
4-7). The sacral and “somber piece of tapestry . . . representing Cleopatra with the asps to her
bosom” (17) in Carmilla’s bedroom not only suggests the liminal reflexivity of the vamp being
vamped and the fact that
passion etymologically entails suffering, but also foreshadows the
revelation that suicides become vampires (82). If one views Cleopatra as a kind of classical Eve
figure, then her vampirism is figuratively handed down to all her daughters or, more
universally, to all children of Eve. Similarly, the painting of “Mircalla, Countess Karnstein” (33),
that is, of Carmilla herself, can ultimately teach initiate Laura her own origins, her own
matrilineage as sacra traditionally do. The woodcuts by Michael Fitzgerald and David Henry
Friston in the text’s original publication in
The Dark Blue (1871-72) prove similarly suggestive,
especially the illustration depicting a shadowy Carmilla reaching out to an illuminated Bertha
asleep on her bed as suspicious General Spielsdorf enters the room, sword in hand (74, see fig.
1). Heller finds Bertha to be “at once unconsciously and voluptuously inviting” and the   
General’s sword “phallic” (86), while I tend to see sacral reflections of Henry Fuseli’s famous
The Nightmare (1781) in this woodcut, suggesting that Carmilla represents an
intrapsychic, limbic layer of Bertha's [and her double Laura's] borderline personality which the
General, personifying the structurally imperative or indicative mood, tries to excise or exorcize.
As sacrum, this represented self-division would be cautionary.

Figure 1

Figure 1.

The General’s lengthy inset story of his ward’s seduction and murder by Carmilla represents
roughly fifteen percent of the entire tale, and as a sacrum, it leads Laura and her father to the
“truth” (or at least one version of the “truth”) about Carmilla. The long masquerade section has
been analyzed in detail by Tammis Elise Thomas, and she pertinently argues that “Le Fanu
depicts the masquerade as a site of initiation into the terrors of the supernatural and the
forbidden pleasures of female same-sex desire” (41). Masks and masquerades are two of   
Turner’s favorite sacral motifs; and when “maskers and monsters” appear together, they  
“provok[e] the novices . . . into thinking hard about the elements and basic building blocks of
symbolic complexes they had hitherto taken for granted as ‘natural’ units” (
Blazing 50). In the
General’s metatext, these “building blocks” include class, social, and personality structures.  For
example, the “aristocratic assembly” obviously honors Carmilla’s mother as “a person of
(58-59) but neglects Le Fanu’s  possible wordplay with
rank, ranging from disgusting and indecent
growing profusely, which connotes two opposing representations of vampires as personifying
abject evil or transformative flow. The General also name-drops “the Grand Duke Charles,”
whose “hospitalities are quite regal” (58), reflecting an elitist value system that allows Carmilla’
s aristocratic mother to take full social advantage of his hospitality by self-inviting a parasite
into his home. And when she claims “the privilege of her mask” in addressing him so
intimately, Carmilla’s masked mother subversively portrays the outside-inside-the-inside motif:
her inhuman mask reveals, rather than conceals, her internal and infernal inhumanity as she
plays liminal mentor: “The knowledge she showed of many passages in my life seemed to me
all but unaccountable.” When the General attempts to mimic her “license of a masquerade” and
requests that she unmask herself, the masker ironically replies “You have no mask to remove.
You can offer me nothing in exchange” (59-60), fully aware that she has already negotiated a
kind of bloody bride-theft.

Related mirror sacra appear, of course, in Le Fanu’s collection title
In A Glass Darkly (1872), in
which “Carmilla” is reprinted with an added Prologue involving Dr. Hesselius. Robert Tracy
relevantly reads this mirror image as a reflection of the neophyte reader: “The glass of    [Le
Fanu’s] title is not a window-pane through which we glimpse dim intimations of a spiritual
world, or of divine truth. It is a mirror in which we glimpse our own dark nature” (xv). In an
even more liminal sense, Turner repeatedly calls
gnosis, the ultimate goal of initiation rites, “a
stage of reflection” (
Forest 105), which implies both Tracy’s self-reflection and “the esoteric
knowledge,” signified by sacra “in a communitas of women,” that Laura must learn in order to
restore herself and rehabilitate her culture:

the esoteric knowledge communicated in symbols in the girls’ puberty rites changes the inmost being of the
neophytes. It is not merely that new knowledge is imparted, but new power is absorbed, power obtained
through the weakness of liminality which will become active in postliminal life when the neophytes’ social
status has been redefined in the aggregation rites. Among the Bemba [tribe in Africa] a woman has been
grown from a girl through the importation of gnosis in a communitas of women (
Dramas 258).

Specifying the exact nature of what Hesselius terms “the profoundest arcana of our dual
existence and its intermediates” (84) in
Carmilla, however, is like turning on lights to see
darkness or depicting the unconscious with rational discourse. Expressing a metaphysical
confusion common to both Gothic mysteries and Victorian crises of faith, Laura exclaims,
apropos of Carmilla’s irrational behavior, “[r]especting these very extraordinary manifestations I
strove in vain to form any satisfactory theory” (23). Gnoses are the flickering shadows on Plato’s
cave wall; and solar “Truth” eclipses the shadows without enlightening them. We could call
Carmilla’s general gnostic bent a kind of  limbic “blood knowledge,” or more specifically, the
female mysteries of blood in various Great Mother or Eleusinian cults; and Kore/Persephone’s
six-month alternation between above ground and underground remains a viable, reintegrative
option for Laura. In another context, Veeder argues that “Carmilla seeks blood knowledge,
beyond names, language, objectifying categories” (208), but he feels that Laura resists this
resource. Pursuing the vampire’s Demiurgic celebration of “Nature,” Joseph Andriano’s Jungian-
Manichaean reading finds that “the parental archetype” in
Carmilla “is vividly polarized: the
patriarchal Logos is the Lord of Light and Spirit, while the martriarchal Eros is the Lady of
Darkness and moribund flesh” (104). We might also call upon the gnosticism of Swedenborg’s
“correspondences” linking heaven and hell, or Le Fanu’s
theatrum mundi with his theatrum mentis,
which certainly animate the text, just as “the doctrine of correspondents” (177) informs
. As Devin Zuber writes, “without Swedenborg’s theory of correspondence or his notion of
influx from a spiritual world, Le Fanu could not have uncannily anticipated post-structural
work on . . . hybrid identity” (75). Or, like Heller, we could see the tale as a battleground
between rival sexualities, pitting the “transmission of knowledge between men” against “female
homoeroticism and female knowing” (89). Or, finally, we might adopt Jamieson Ridenhour’s
recent folkloric-postcolonial analysis of
Carmilla which sees it as a complex aisling or allegorical
encounter with an enchanting “fairy-woman” who represents Ireland and provides “some
foretelling of the future” that carries gnostic implications. At the same time, Ridenhour finds the
text, like in-betwixt-and-between Le Fanu himself, “both mirroring and subverting the
Nationalist [
aisling] form [and so] coming out with no clear response” (xxix,xxxv).

Following Turner’s (and his wife Edith’s) leads, however, I want to conclude by discussing
Carmilla as a liminal pilgrimage, specifically the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough
Derg, County Donegal, in order to juggle gnostic possibilities which both include and integrate
many of the above readings. For Turner, again, “gnosis is the crux of liminality” since it
“abounds in direct or figurative transgressions of the moral order which rules secular life, such
as human sacrifice, cannibalism, parricide and incestuous unions” (
Blazing 152); and, indeed,
human sacrifice, cannibalism, and incest all appear in
Carmilla. Turner compares pilgrimages
and initiation rituals (and rites of affliction) since “both in initiation rites and in the pilgrimage
process, the dead are conceived of as transformative agencies and as mediating between various
domains normally classified as distinct” (
Blazing 47), just as Le Fanu’s “ancestral shade”
Carmilla transforms Laura’s innocence and mediates between ancient and contemporary, pagan
and Catholic, and dying and living. Suggestively, it is on the liminal “western fringes of Europe,
in the surviving haunts of the Celtic peoples,” like “Ireland,” that “spirits of the dead,
temporarily released from purgatory, have begged mortals in the twilight” (
Blazing 43) to make
a pilgrimage for them, which suggests that Carmilla may desire salvation as much as she does
the satisfaction of her sanguine appetites. Still, pilgrimage goals often waver between pleasing
or placating ancestral shades, on the one hand, and petitioning their forgiveness or seeking
solace in bereavement, on the other. The latter possibility recalls General Spielsdorf’s grief over
Bertha, but really all such optional goals may be operative, whether ironically so or not, in

According to the Turners, the Church sometimes condoned “pagan practices [like vampire
slaying] which were not directly repugnant to Christian notions of morality” (33). And this is
especially true of the pilgrimage to the liminal site of St. Patrick’s Purgatory: “the very gate to
[the] western underworld. . . . whose [Celtic] mythology regards the sunset as the path to the
Land of the Dead, and the soul as journeying westward after death” toward St. Patrick’s
“hallowed ruin” (112-13). In a remarkably similar vein, Laura introduces her pilgrimage to “the
Chapel of Karnstein” and “grave of the Countess Mircalla” (79): “Passing the drawbridge we
turn to the right, and follow the road over the steep gothic bridge, westward, to reach the
deserted village and ruined castle” (54). Although the journey of “half a league” (57) may hardly
seem a pilgrimage in terms of space, it is much prolonged, in terms of time, by the General’s
lengthy inset tale. It may also be more than coincidental that the transitional time frame of
Carmilla from midsummer to early autumn overlaps with the ten-week, traditional pilgrimage
period “from June 1 to August 15" (124, besides suggesting the seasonal transformation from the
hot-house period of adolescence to the mature wisdom of autumnal harvest represented in
The Four Zoas). Furthermore, “the name of Lough Derg (derg means ‘red’) [refers] to the
blood of a serpent slain in its waters by St. Patrick”; and “the origin of [this] legend [rests] in pre-
Christian mythology and pagan ideas of life after death” since Ireland’s patron saint was then
blessed with a “miraculous glimpse of Purgatory, where the suffering soul lay in unspeakable
torment” (110-11). The name of the slain serpent is “Caorthannach, or Corra–the Devil’s mother,”
another mongrel monster who “resemble[s] a wolf with a serpent’s tale” (123).

Such details add nuances to the General’s allusion to Carmilla’s “hellish arts” and “malignity of
hell,” besides his calling the Karnstein Ruins “accursed ground” (76). They also recall that
Carmilla’s “coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, [the vampire’s] body
lay immersed” (79) in addition to echoes of
Kore and chora in Corra, the sacral, monstrous hybrid
“recombined in bizarre and terrifying imagery,” which places “the initiand temporarily into
close rapport with the primary or primordial generative powers of the cosmos” (“Myth and
Symbol” 577). When we further note that “St. Catherine is the only foreign saint” to be
monumentally honored at Lough Derg, and that she was “martyred by being beheaded” (Turner
and Turner 118), such details suggest not only “the long lost monument of Mircalla, Countess
Karnstein” with its “carved escutcheon” and “monumental inscription,” but also the fact that
Mircalla-Carmilla’s “head was struck off, and a current of blood flowed from the severed neck”
(77,79). As always with the “figure of Carmilla,” though, we are left with more questions than
answers: is her death a kind of baptism of blood like St. Catherine’s; is her blood
flow a sign of
liminal self-sacrifice and sacral martyrdom for Laura’s benefit; conversely, is her destruction a
retributive exorcism ironically indicting juridical-priestly, structural vengeance; or is it an
appropriately redressive cure of the vampire’s plague in a ritual of affliction?  But there’s more.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory is also “impregnated with Irish experiences,” with “specific symbols and
ideas of Irishness” (Turner and Turner 136). In fact, it is “a kind of national totemic center, where
the Irish periodically reaffirm and strengthen their sentiments of solidarity”; but at the same
time, it reflects the traditional “disunity among the Irish themselves,” particularly the
“perennial divisiveness in Irish politics” (131). “Pilgrim symbology” also provides “a clue to
the iconoclastic passion of the English assailants of the Lough Derg pilgrimage, who wish both
to crush the spirit of Irish independence and to break the Roman [Catholic] link” (136). And
these are exactly the kind of cultural and personal conflicts that McCormack sees confronting Le
Fanu’s betwixt-and-between “Anglo-Irish ascendency”: “Caught between the new and
aggressive power of Irish Catholics and the distant authority of English politicians who openly
repudiated their identity of interest, [the Anglo-Irish were] forced to examine [their]
alternatives” (80). The gnostic mystery then remains–where, personally, does Le Fanu stand in
this treasure-trove of comparative riches?

I would suggest that like Lough Derg with its competing pagan, Protestant, and Catholic
histories (and mythologies) and like the bicameral brain with its multi-layered stem, Le Fanu
liberally layered
Carmilla with a variety of contesting structural and gnostic impulses. Unlike
Structuralism, however, Gnosticism itself harbors competing symbologies and should more
accurately be termed
gnosticisms or gnoses. For example, in the so-called “Manual of Discipline,”
God created “the Prince of Lights” and “the Angel of Darkness,” otherwise named “the spirits of
Truth and of Error”: “But God in the mysteries of his understanding and in his glorious wisdom
has ordained a period for the ruin of error, and in the appointed time of punishment he will
destroy it forever” (Campbell 284), which could reflect a gnostic sanctioning of Carmilla’s
destruction. On the other hand, in several gnostic accounts of Eden, the serpent becomes a
liminal mentor and the repository of feminine knowledge, while the overruling God becomes a
kind of hyperstructural Blakean Nobodaddy. In the words of the
Hypostasis of the Archons, “Then
the Female Spiritual Principle came in the Snake, the Instructor, and it taught [the First Parents],
saying, ‘. . . you shall not die; for it was out of jealousy that he said this to you. Rather, your eyes
shall open, and you shall become like gods, recognizing evil and good.’ . . . And the arrogant
Ruler cursed the Woman . . . [and] . . . the Snake” (Pagels 36), which reading could lead to
gnostic support of Carmilla’s liminal virtues. The problem remains that these texts were not
discovered until after Le Fanu’s death, and, except for the influence of Swedenborg, we don’t
really know how acquainted Le Fanu was with gnostic ideas.  Still,
Uncle Silas’s theory of
correspondences certainly reflects liminality. In the words of the
Gospel of Thomas, unearthed in
the twentieth century but representing perennial gnostic ideas like the unity of center and
circumference, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside
and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and
the female one and the same . . . then you will enter [the Kingdom].” And that “Kingdom is
inside of you, and it is outside of you” (Pagels 155,154).

In conclusion, then, I would say that in
Carmilla liminality allowed Le Fanu to dramatize many
of the paradoxes within his own transitional culture and within his own transforming selfhood.
Liminality delights in disorder and dwells in possibility. Consequently, it should not be used
systematically as a kind of master trope since that would be most “unliminal” or
deliminalizing as
Turner would say. Turner’s son Frederick, a poet and literary critic, puts it this way: “Turner
would surely approve of the appropriation of his ideas across the disciplinary boundaries that
separate the social sciences from the humanities; but we must recognize that he would have
been uneasy at the prospect of a system or school of Turnerian literary criticism, especially if it
showed signs of turning into an orthodoxy” (148). And just as liminality suggests the
unfinished, incomplete, or potentially transformative, many readers have noted the lack of
closure at the “close” of
Carmilla. James Twitchell argues that “true to the gothic tradition the last
word is never written” (132), Thomas that “several subversive forces remain at large at the
narrative’s conclusion” (58), Adrienne Major that “the impossibility of narrative closure” is due
to “lingering horror [and] ruthless domesticity” at the tale’s end (164,163), and Nancy Welter
Carmilla “challeng[es] itself with an ending that refuses to restore order among the
characters” (138). Lee, though, comes closest to providing a liminal reading: “As Laura closes
her narrative, the borders of her self–symbolized by [her] room’s threshold–remain in a
compromised, traversable state” (33).

Several concluding mysteries do remain unresolved. What, for example, is Bertha’s fate, since
she cannot rest easy after her death at Carmilla’s hand, unless Carmilla’s own death somehow
frees all the souls she has turned? The only plausible answer is that the General has secretly
staked and beheaded his ward as Seward and Van Helsing do to Lucy in
Dracula, though such a
disturbing possibility is never broached in the text. And what about “that quaint Baron
Vordenburg,” whose “grotesque features puckered up into a mysterious smile” (80-81) when
asked about Carmilla? Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf “were indebted” to his “curious
lore . . . for the discovery of the Countess Mircalla’s grave” (80). Still, that “mysterious smile”
suggests a mentoring trickster. And the text’s repeated instances of narrative unreliability and
compulsive acts of repetition make one wonder whether the good Baron hasn’t actually
repeated “the stratagem” of the “Moravian nobleman,” his ancestor (though whether matrilineal
or patrilineal hangs in liminal uncertainty), lest the “remains” of
his idol Mircalla be “profaned
by the outrage of a posthumous execution” (81-82). Despite an “official paper” (79) to the
contrary, this possibility appears no more farfetched than Vordenburg’s ancestral shade’s
original deception of officialdom; and it also seems in the spirit of the

And lastly, what about Laura? The answer to this central question depends heavily on her own,
and our own, final perceptions of Carmilla, but the possibilities would seem to include Laura’s
liminal failure as well as her liminal success since she plays mentor to Hesselius, the town lady,
and you and me. My own perception, though, is that Laura hangs suspended in prolonged (and
certainly fictive) liminality, what McCormack calls Le Fanu’s symptomatic stance of
“transitional stasis” (260), because she loses, perhaps even sacrifices, her dramatic agency and
functions solely as a kind of sober, sad, and spectral narrator. As Turner writes, “Liminality may
be the scene of disease, despair, death, suicide, the breakdown without compensatory
replacement of normative, well-defined social ties and bonds” (
From Ritual 46). In the added
Prologue, Laura has literally become spectral in death, whether or not she has been turned into
a vampire through Carmilla’s “love.” In any case, since liminal thresholds provide such far-
reaching passages into
Carmilla, it seems hardly accidental that Laura’s final word on the subject,
ten years later, would be door: “often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light
step of Carmilla at the drawing-room
door” (83).

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