Date read: 10.31.13
Book from: Public library, and then personal collection.
“At an exclusive girls’ boarding school, a sixteen-year-old girl records her most intimate thoughts in a diary. The object of her growing obsession is her roommate, Lucy Blake, and Lucy’s friendship with their new and disturbing classmate. Ernessa is an enigmatic, moody presence with pale skin and hypnotic eyes.
Around her swirl rumors, suspicions, and secrets – and a series of ominous disasters. As fear spreads through the school and Lucy isn’t Lucy anymore, fantasy and reality mingle until what is true and what is dreamed bleed together into a waking nightmare that evokes with gothic menace the anxieties, lusts, and fears of adolescence. At the center of the diary is the question that haunts all who read it: Is Ernessa really a vampire? Or has the narrator trapped herself in the fevered world of her own imagining?”
I had the great honor and pleasure recently of instigating Kakaner’s first-ever read of J. S. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla;” many squees were squeed between the two of us. I had first read the sapphic vampire classic in one bleary sitting around midnight several winters ago, as I was in bed with a fever: perfect.
Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel The Moth Diaries, a self-aware successor to both “Carmilla” and Dracula, absorbed my autumn last year in an even more protracted fever dream. The book is barely over 200 pages long, but I read and reread its middle parts continuously, hypnotically, for almost two months before I finally brought the affair to a close and committed myself to reading the last chapter.
The book feels hermetic, labyrinthine: a maze constructed not of stone or hedges but of wood-paneled walls and prim New England convention, boarding-school propriety fencing in the daughters of unhappy families.
The novel’s narrator – an unnamed diarist – is severe, intellectual, and morbid, but also mordantly funny in her teenaged forthrightness. Cafeteria food, the indignities of boarding-school routines, and the pretensions and fixations of her classmates are scrutinized and discussed with nearly equal intensity to her idolization of Lucy, her hateful fascination with Ernessa, and her anguish over her poet father’s suicide. Donuts, gossip, LSD, field hockey, school dances; sex, blood, fear, death, eating disorders, anti-Semitism. (The narrator and Ernessa are two of the only three Jews in their entire, WASPy school, in the 1970’s.) And the specter of homosexuality in an all-girls’ school: “We were always so careful not to be like that. Girls who go too far.”
All of it is felt keenly, absorbed entirely. “She was […] excruciatingly alive, as if she had been born without a skin,” the adult narrator says of her younger self in the afterword. There’s horror, awe, regret, tenderness, and involuntary longing all in that statement. “I had affection for her, and I have much less for the one who has replaced her.”
From start to finish, The Moth Diaries engages more passionately and personally with the opposition between youth and ageing than any other vampire story I’ve read. Eternal youth means something painfully specific in this book. It means always feeling, always needing, never having enough. It means never getting better, never being able to admit that what’s lost is lost and not coming back. It means being violently alive.
The narrator does get better; her preface and afterword tell us so. But survival, in her straitlaced milieu, also means ossification, it means surrender to convention and a convenient degree of unfeeling. The novel’s conclusion is deeply melancholy: the narrator has survived the turmoil and burning intensity of her adolescence, but finds herself adrift in a colorless marriage, with daughters who are so blissfully functional as to seem alien. Having achieved distance from her pain also means being distanced from the chief sources of meaning in her teenaged life – the loss of her father, and her relationship with Lucy. “[The girl who wrote the diary] had a father. I don’t.”
Even as someone who’s always had a peculiar relationship to ideas of childhood and childishness, I would never choose to return to my adolescent self. I am really, unspeakably appreciative of the comfortable clarity and calmness that getting older has brought. But I do sometimes feel, in a detached way, strangely admiring of that unmediated intensity of feeling: how was feeling that much, obsessing that much, even possible? Reading The Moth Diaries brought me to a troubled sense of comradeship with its narrator. The idea that the rarefied selfishness of adolescence is in some way a purer, elemental state becomes a temptation. The young woman as vampire: helplessly, reflexively appetitive; monstrous yet pure.
Relevant reading: Helen Oyeyemi’s equally Carmilla-flavored haunted-house/vampire novel White is for Witching (which I wrote about here). Oyeyemi likewise draws the connection between female vampires and disordered eating.
Relevant viewing: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Mary Harron’s 2012 film adaptation of The Moth Diaries felt dismayingly insubstantial and silly, despite strong performances by both Sarah Bolger as the protagonist (named Rebecca in the film) and Lily Cole as Ernessa. Two or three of the fantastical scenes were lovely, terrifying, and eerie; otherwise, the film is very missable.