Have you ever read Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’? It’s one of the most frightening vampire books I’ve ever come across. I first read it several years ago when I was an actress. The company was touring with ‘Wuthering Heights’, spending a week in almost every town in Britain.
For the week in Malvern I was sharing digs with an actress called Helen Dorwood, who was playing Nelly Dean. It was the ground-floor flat of a sizeable Edwardian house, where the landlady, when she didn’t have guests, lived alone.
On the second night Helen had to drive to London after the perfomance to attend an audition the following morning. She came back to the digs to collect a few things and, the landlady being in bed, I locked up after she’d left. It was well after midnight but actors take a long time to wind down after a performance and I was intending to read ‘Carmilla’ till the small hours.
My ground-floor bedroom was over a basement and roughly ten feet above the front garden. The night was so quiet, the house might have been in the middle of nowhere rather than a country town. I’d just got to the bit in the book where the narrator senses something in her room, creeping towards the foot of the
bed, when there was a scratching on the window.
In my experience, when you’re terrified you don’t go cold but hot. I remember the blood pounding in my ears as the scratching came again. What was it that could reach my window by standing ten feet below in the garden? For the life of me, I couldn’t open the curtains to look. In horror I ran to my landlady and woke her up. We could hear that scratching as we approached my room.
I’ve forgotten her name, but she was made of sterner stuff than I was. She dragged back the curtains to reveal Helen Dorwood standing on the front steps, leaning over the parapet and scratching on the window with a stick – the only way she could reach it. She’d forgotten her phone, and not wanting to awaken the landlady by ringing the doorbell, had lighted on this brilliant alternative for getting my attention.
They both poured scorn on me, of course, for my cowardice and I had to apologize to the landlady profusely. But when that infernal nuisance Helen Dorwood had finally gone and the landlady was back in bed, I put out Le Fanu’s masterpiece the way one puts out a cat, and left it on the doorstep till morning. I kept my light on, too, though I’ve a feeling I didn’t sleep till sunrise.