The story begins in an abandoned Romanian village on the eve of the First World War, where the Countess, "queen of the vampires," lives. Ghosts live with her in the castle, but she keeps herself alone in a dusty, rotting and lightless suite. She wears her dead mother's bridal gown as though it is a uniform. Her only company is a caged lark. The Countess likes the lark's song because "she likes to hear it announce how it cannot escape."
The Countess has no other vampire for company since a priest killed her father, Nosferatu, when she was a child. Therefore she is the sole "mistress of ... disintegration," throughout her village. Despite her power, the Countess abhors her life of living death. She wishes to be human, but does not know if this is possible. Her only consolation is her deck of Tarot cards, which invariably spell out the destiny, "wisdom, death, dissolution." She tries to interpret this repeated fate to her liking, but it is "irreversible."
The Countess's governess, an "old mute," lets her out at night to feed. When the Countess was young, she limited her prey to rabbits and other small creatures. "But now she is a woman, she must have men." The governess finds unsuspecting male travelers by the village fountain and leads them back to the Countess's chamber. Each time she finishes sucking the blood from a victim, she is disgusted by what she has done. She buries her victim's remains in her garden. During the day, the Countess lies in her coffin, her nightgown stained with the blood of last night's prey.
The narrator begins to evoke the story of Jack and the beanstalk, inserting snippets of that fairytale's most famous lines between paragraphs. "Fee fie fo fum / I smell the blood of an Englishman." Our hero appears. He is a British soldier on vacation, who ventures into the Countess's village. He is special because he is a virgin and is part of a generation that is destined to fight in France; therefore he represents "change and time." He also rides a bicycle, which the narrator explains is the embodiment of reason; therefore it protects the rider somewhat against the irrational and supernatural. But the soldier is about to venture into the Countess's unchangeable land of "timeless Gothic eternity" where reason has no place.
Even though we are told her fate is unchangeable, the Countess finds hope when, for the first time, her Tarot cards show "a hand of love and death." The fate on the cards awakens the Countess magically just as "a single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood." The Countess does not know that she has chosen this hand because the soldier has just crossed into her land. The narrator interjects, "Be he alive or be he dead / I'll grind his bones to make my bread."
The soldier stops at the fountain to refresh himself, when the Countess's governess approaches and invites him to the castle. She leads him there through thickets of "obscene" and slightly overripe roses whose scent overwhelms and dizzies him. The castle reminds the soldier of the castles in ghost stories and he is afraid, but he steels himself to enter. The governess manages to take the soldier's bicycle from him despite his protestations and leads him into the freezing, lightless castle. The narrator is careful to mention that the soldier does not shiver from the cold. The governess feeds the soldier and then leads him to the Countess's chamber. On the way there, his suspicions continue but he convinces himself that his fears are irrational.
At last, they reach the Countess's chamber, which the narrator says is like "Juliet's tomb." Once his eyes adjust to the dark, the soldier finds himself charmed by the Countess's sad beauty. At the same time, he finds her lush, "obese" red mouth obscene. When the governess raises her lantern to the soldier's face to show it to the Countess, the vampire queen collapses into her chair with a cry of distress and knocks her Tarot cards to the floor. The soldier's face affects her the way light does, so she must put on a pair of dark glasses to continue being near him.
The soldier gathers up the cards and hands them to the Countess. When she revives herself a bit, she serves him coffee. The narrator interjects, "Vous serez ma proie," which means, "You will be my prey." Suddenly, the Countess's inner voice begins to speak. It says, "The bridegroom is come, he will go into the chamber which has been prepared for him ... I will be very gentle ... And could love free me from the shadows? ... See, how I'm ready for you. I've always been ready for you; I've been waiting for you in my wedding dress..." Even though the Countess plainly states her intention to kill the soldier, the narrator reminds us that "one kiss, however, and only one, woke up the Sleeping Beauty of the Wood."
Even though the Countess makes the soldier uneasy, he is not afraid because he does not believe in the supernatural. The narrator explains, "this lack of imagination gives his heroism to the hero." The narrator interjects, "Suivez-moi. / Je vous attendaid. / Vouz serez ma proie," meaning, "Follow me. I have awaited you. You will be my prey." Hunger overcomes the Countess. She leads the soldier to her bedchamber. He is still not afraid, wanting only to protect her from whatever torments her. As the Countess tries to undress in front of the soldier, she shakes so violently that she drops her glasses on the floor, where they shatter. She cuts herself on a fragment of glass and becomes fascinated by the novel sight of her own blood. The soldier kisses her gash to stop the blood.
The soldier wakes up on the Countess's floor to find the windows open and light flooding into the room. The floor is covered in rose petals. The freed lark perches on the coffin and sings. The trappings of the Countess's chamber look cheap and fake in the light. The Countess herself is nowhere to be seen. The soldier takes the lark on his wrist and joyfully urges it into the sky. Next, he begins to save the Countess. He thinks, "We shall turn her into the lovely girl she is; I shall cure her of all these nightmares." He finds her dead in her boudoir, hunched over her Tarot cards with a single rose. Now that she is dead, she finally looks imperfect and therefore human. The governess ushers the soldier out of the castle and he returns to his regiment by bicycle. Back at the barracks, he finds the rose in his pocket and puts it in water to try to "resurrect" it. As he returns to his room after dinner, the soldier smells the "reeling odour" of the rose from down the hall. He arrives to find it fully restored with all its "corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendour." The narrator ends the story by stating, "Next day, his regiment embarked for France."
"The Lady of the House of Love" is based loosely on the story of Sleeping Beauty, and incorporates vampire legends as well as the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. On one level, the story can be seen as an allegory of the triumph of reason over unreason. The Countess represents unreason. Reason states that death is definite, but she defies this law because she is the living dead. She lives in the dark, which represents ambiguity and mystery. The narrator refers to her suite as "Juliet's tomb" to indicate that just as Juliet was alive in the guise of death, the Countess is dead in the guise of life. Legend tells us that vampires die when exposed to light because their bodies disintegrate. However, we can also say that light kills vampires because it exposes them as impossibilities. It is not only light but also enlightenment that they cannot withstand. The Countess's irrational existence gives her great power, but it condemns her to misery. She is trapped in an unasked-for and seemingly irrevocable destiny, just as her lark is trapped in its cage. She takes pleasure in caging the lark because she herself is caged. Whereas she cannot free herself from her illogical fate, she enjoys having control over the lark.
In sharp contrast to the Countess, the soldier represents reason. He does not believe in the supernatural, so he does not shiver in fear when he enters the Countess's lair. He is not afraid of her even when she tells him, "You will be my prey." He also rides a bicycle, which symbolizes human reason at work; the bicycle functions on the basis of human laws and has no power beyond their stipulations. When the soldier initially refuses to give the governess his bicycle, he is symbolically denying a belief in the irrational. He refuses to be separated from his bicycle just as he refuses to be separated from reason. Because the soldier embodies 'the light of reason' so completely, his face actually blinds the Countess so that she must wear glasses in his presence. At the story's end, light floods the Countess's room, showing it to be false and chintzy. Symbolically, reason invades the realm of unreason, showing it to be no more than an illusion. Her voice confirms postmortem, "I was only an invention of darkness." The Countess herself transforms from an impossible creature, a vampire, into a creature of reason, a human. She also succumbs to the definiteness of death. One conflating factor at the end of the story is the rose that the soldier takes back to the barracks. He performs an act of unreason by restoring the rose not only to life but also to its full glory. The rose's revival suggests that, despite reason's triumph, unreason has a small place in life. Additionally, the Tarot cards' correct prediction lends validity to the "unreasonable" art of fortunetelling.
Central to the Countess's torment is desire in the absence of sex. Because the Countess is dead, she is devoid of sexual desire because her sole lust is for blood. The narrator tells us, "However hard she tries to think of any other, she only knows one kind of consummation." The Countess's lack of sexuality is never more obvious than when she is luring the soldier into her bedchamber. He assumes that she is making a sexual advance uses the word "prey" to tease him, when she really intends to murder him and make him her literal prey. So unable is the Countess to understand sexual desire that she dies before she can lose her virginity. Hence, she leaves the rose-representing her vagina and the desire she longs to experience-for the soldier. She laments, "And I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave. One a grave." Carter invokes the idea of vagina dentata by describing the rose's thorns as fangs. Just as she was able to kill but not kiss with her mouth, the Countess was unable to experience pleasure from her "thorned" vagina. The rose is dead like the Countess and her chance to experience love and sexual fulfillment. In addition, thousands of roses bloom above places in the ground where the Countess's victims are buried. They are not only numerous but illogically decadent, beautiful, and fragrant, echoing the Countess's physical perfection. Being symbols of femininity and sex, they mock the Countess's sexless existence within the mansion that is her prison. Only when she is dead can her palace truly be "The House of Love," full of light and potential.
The narrator continually invokes both Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk to underscore how enlightenment and death are inseparable for the Countess. Even as we are reminded that one kiss was sufficient to awaken Sleeping Beauty, we are also reminded that the Countess, like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, is the natural antagonist of mankind. Therefore the Countess cannot help but want to destroy the man who can save her. Unlike the giant, the Countess is so "obscenely" beautiful that she appears unreal; "her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, of her soullessness." Because it has no flaw, her face is as falsely human as the mask The Beast in "The Tiger's Bride" wears. Only when she has transformed and consequently died does her face look "far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human." The reversal at the story's end confirms one last time that love cannot survive in the Countess's sleepwalking world of torment. Although she intends to suck the soldier's blood, he ends up tasting her blood when he kisses her wound. She transforms from a creature that bleeds others dry into a woman, 'a being that bleeds.' The act of spilling blood can be interpreted as loss of virginity as well as menstruation; the Countess is coming of age as well as getting a taste, however brief and painful, of sexual contact. As we know, her "enlightenment" is brief and destructive; she cannot survive in a world of reason, so for her, "the end of exile is the end of being."
For the Countess, a lack of sexual understanding and experience is a weakness. For the soldier, virginity and sexual naivetÃ© are sources of strength. The narrator explains, "he is immune to shadow, due to his virginity" and, "he has the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states; ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potentia, and, furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance. He is more than he knows." According to the narrator, the soldier's sexual and transformative power is so great precisely because it is untapped. Like the force of the water behind a dam, his stored potential is more powerful than potential already released. The soldier is indeed "more than he knows," because he is able to transform the Countess into a human by kissing her. His reason or "lack of imagination" is heroic and overwhelms her unreason. We have said that the soldier's act of restoring the rose to life concedes some validity to unreason. We can also say that the "resurrected" rose redeems the positive aspect of illogical or magical things. Even as the solder destroys the Countess with reason, he redeems a part of her, somewhat illogically, with love and reason. In the story's ultimate sentence, the narrator reminds us that the soldier is still human despite his great power, and that the reason he exemplifies goes hand-in-hand with mortality. His regiment embarks for France, where he may be killed fighting. The story's ending need not be seen as ominous, however, because as a participant in the First World War, the soldier also represents the opportunity for righteousness, change and progress.