Review of Kyle Marffin’s ‘Carmilla The Return’
Like the more famous novel Dracula, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire classic about the lonely predatory Carmilla inspires some to pen sequels. Usually, these have taken the form of films. Most famously, Hammer studios filmed the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy” (actually a misnomer–four not three films ended up made). Only one of these–Lust for a Vampire–meets the criteria of being a ‘sequel.’ The others seem rather clearly prequels, taking place prior to the first film.
In 1998 author Kyle Marffin wrote a novel unambiguously a continuation of Le Fanu’s work. Carmilla The Return even explains how that might be possible. After all, as the original tale ends Carmilla not only has a stake driven into her heart but is then beheaded and her body burned!
For the sake of future readers, let us leave that mystery unexplained here.
The novel proper deals with Carmilla’s activities in the ‘present’ (the 1990s) with flashback chapters recalling the vampiress’s activities since the 19th century. These chapters that read like dipping into memory rather eclipse the rest of the book. Marffin deserves credit for pulling off what many writers fail to do–draw us into the life and crimes of a villain, an antagonist for whom we feel ambiguity.
He fails at making the rest of the story or characters nearly as interesting. Maybe part of this comes from his decision that history would repeat itself. Again she stalks and kills a military officer’s ward, said officer (a colonel, like the original) swearing vengeance. Again she finds a young woman–named Lauren instead of Laura–who feels a strange attraction, and they grow close in an isolated wooded area while mysterious deaths begin popping up. As with Le Fanu, the target of Carmilla’s affections lost her mother and enjoys (or endures) a distant relationship with her father.
None of these characters grab one’s heart. Since the tale centers around their relationships rather than some kind of thrilling plot, these short-circuits the whole story. More, the fact history does repeat itself so obviously is portrayed but never explored. Why is it happening? Are these folks reincarnated? Is it part of Carmilla’s curse as part of being undead? Maybe this is the equivalent of God’s practical joke? Likewise neither Lauren nor her father seem vivid at all. One wonders why Carmilla finds this ordinary girl at all interesting (fair is fair–Lauren commits an extraordinary act at the novel’s climax, one that barely feels consistent because she seems so extremely ordinary page after page after page).
It doesn’t help that Marffin also decides (for the most part) to go with the lowest common denominator. He gives Lauren a male romantic interest, which clashes with the deja-vu effect seemingly aimed at here, and doesn’t seem to add anything to the tale. He tosses in all sorts of titillating details to the plot for seeming no other reason–yet pulls his punch! A nonchalant mention of seducing then feeding upon a pair of nuns feels a tiny bit shocking, but lacks as much impact as Marffin seems to aim for. He fails to shock us enough, while trying to shock some. The result reminds one of a tease.
And yet–the backstory genuinely fascinates. I find those sections of the novel bear re-reading. They give a glimpse of a life stretching decade after decade, of a mind enduring loss and lack of meaning and given to obsessive asking questions for which no answers can be found. Yet with patience, a languor born out of century after century. Quite impressive, and far better than the rest of novel. Likewise, the plot itself is a good one, with a climax that should have felt stronger.