Carmilla: The Return

A version of this review will appear in The Vampire's Crypt 18 (Fall 1998). The Vampire's Crypt web site is:

Kyle Marffin. Carmilla: The Return. Darien, Ill.: Design Image, 1998. ISBN 1-891946-02-1; $15.95/$19.50.

The cover blurb asks, "What if the story didn't end as LeFanu wrote it? What if the wickedly alluring vampire survived and still stalked the dark nights of modern day America?" CARMILLA: THE RETURN seeks to answer these questions by in effect tricking out Le Fanu's story in modern dress. Kyle Marffin has fleshed out the skeleton of "Carmilla" using not only present-day settings but a modern storytelling style that features sex, gore, a heaping helping of revenge, and just a soupcon of existentialism.

When Lauren Vestal travels to remote Watersmeet, Wisconsin, to spend a week at the family lodge, she thinks she is escaping not only the day-to-day blahs of her job as a clerk at Bloomingdale's but the mysterious, dark-haired girl who seemingly has been stalking her. Distance, however, is only a temporary obstacle to a creature still proud of her Styrian ancestry, a creature who can bestow good dreams or bad, who walks side-by-side with wolves and has no scruples about how she gets cars (although she dislikes them) or money or clothes.

Driving to the lodge in a rising blizzard, Lauren nearly has a head-on collision with an old truck. She drags its single, cold occupant to her home. Thanks to the storm, there is no electricity, the phone does not work, the road is impassable ... and the woman that she had taken for dead rises the next evening, seemingly not much worse for her experience and perfectly happy to heat the house with wood: "Where I come from, people have gotten by on nothing more for centuries." The newcomer apologizes for having frightened Lauren with her pursuit: "But surely you aren't completely repelled by my -- my interest in you?"

After a few days alone in the lodge with her, Lauren isn't: in fact, her own interest focuses on Carmilla to the exclusion of old flame Steven Michaels and practically everything else. Lauren's father, however, is growing concerned about his inability contact his daughter -- and not much less concerned about his old friend, Colonel Clovicky, who seems to have gone insane after the death of his niece Barbara. The colonel is convinced that Barbara fell into fatally bad company: that of a vampire. And Barbara's diary reveals that the beautiful vampire kept asking her about Lauren Vestal.

Interspersed with Carmilla's pursuit of her prize are the sort of adventures one expects in a horror novel, mostly the-rapist- raped-type comeuppance, delivered in manner befitting a vampire with superhuman strength, hypnotic powers, and an affinity with wolves. Carmilla enjoys inflicting pain on people who want to hurt her or use her. And we occasionally see sources of her own pain: her recollections of being driven from her family tomb, and of a final visit to Laura, who briefly knew her as a friend of her youth.

Although arguably "Carmilla' in modern dress," the very modernness of CARMILLA: THE RETURN is antithetical to the spirit of the work that inspired it. Le Fanu's "Carmilla" is arguably a horror story, but it is not a *horrible* story: no would-be rapists are murdered, no one is eaten alive by wolves, no vampire hunter is betrayed by the woman he came to rescue. All this and more graces the pages of CARMILLA: THE RETURN. And so does a great deal of sex. Marffin's tale is thick with sexual adventure: Carmilla's final teasing assault on a disillusioned Barbara; Carmilla turning the tables on a couple who pick her up at a bar; Carmilla's seduction of Lauren; Lauren and Carmilla's side-by-side pursuit of two drunken young men who get far more of a bedful than they anticipated.

Of course, the mores of Le Fanu's time prevented him from writing such an explicitly sexual story: the original Carmilla's interest in Laura is certainly not limited to the Platonic. But "Carmilla's" lack of bared breasts and swelling crotches does not merely make the story quaint or dated: it gives it a subdued charm that thrust-by-thrust accounts of even the most delightful (or delightfully vengeful) sex can never compare with. Purists may also take issue with Marffin's reworking of Carmilla's vampire traits to conform more closely to those of current pop culture vampires. His Carmilla is repelled by garlic and crosses, now-familiar motifs that did not figure in Le Fanu's tale; her utter intolerance for sunlight would have been an intolerable burden to the original Carmilla, who merely rose late and preferred the shade.

Perhaps it is not fair to compare CARMILLA: THE RETURN to something it does not seek to emulate. The comparison, however, is inevitable: the nature of both works demands it. Beside works manifesting the sex- and gore-heavy norms of modern horror, Le Fanu's original tale is arguably slow and bland. In his Author's Note, Marffin claims that "Carmilla" contains "more subplots and character cameos than most readers can digest." But in reworking the story, he has done very little streamlining: CARMILLA: THE RETURN likewise has its share of subplots and cameos, with citizens of Watersmeet living their day-to-day lives and throwaway characters appearing only to fall to Carmilla's fangs and bad temper. Marffin's Carmilla says of herself, "Sometimes I am only twenty years old. Inside." Carmilla's actions and attitudes reflect the directness, intolerance, and immaturity of a woman barely out of her teens -- attributes that Marffin evidently imputes to modern readers and caters to with his protagonist's adventures.

I may be in my own way as immoderate and impatient as Carmilla, for I found CARMILLA: THE RETURN disappointing. Not for the sex and violence, nor the protagonists' shallowness, nor even its unhappy ending -- although none of these are traits I particularly like. Rather, it was for the presentation, which suggests that these traits are desirable and, in fact, inevitable; that Carmilla's story must be continued and that this is the only way it could be. Horror aficionados may well enjoy Carmilla's fierce pursuit of her various prey, Lauren's slow decline, and the chase across Europe undertaken in hopes of redeeming her. I found it all a little sad: not sad with the epic sorrow of a tragedy, but with the flatness of possibilities left unrealized.

The Mad Bibliographer
Cathy Krusberg

Fanged Films

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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