Author: Karen Russell
Type: Fiction, short stories
Full title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories
I read it: August 2014
I was struck by the title story when I first read it in one of the Best American Short Stories collections, and always wanted to return to the warm Italian glow of that tale. It was one I had catalogued in my mind as “vampire tale; unique” which are fun to collect (I Am Legend sits up on that shelf as well). This take is more melancholy than dangerous, but still keeps the legendary feel of the creatures.
Although I liked Swamplandia! I was eager to get back to the Karen Russell I knew from shorter fiction. The collection only has eight stories, though a few are long enough that the whole comes in at well over 200 pages. Several of the stories go for the outright strange, relying on electric premises the reader must trust will hold true. “Reeling for the Empire” tells of women coerced into slave labor to the point they become physical silkworms, until one of them ponders a rebellious act. It’s physical and dreamlike. Even stranger is “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which select former U.S. presidents are reincarnated into the bodies of horses housed in neighboring stalls–yet who retain the minds and desires of the actual presidents themselves. It’s amusing and surprisingly works (and has to be fun for the author, like similar tales of imagined conversations between presidents).
Each story has something of the fantastical; the differences come down to amount and execution. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is an unfortunate misstep, more of a sketch than a story. It’s not clear what the tailgating is truly for, or whether or not the human characters live in our timeline or some imagined future. A bummer, really, because I do appreciate any Antarctic setting. Another story that falls a little flat is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” It’s a somewhat straightforward tale of teenage wandering, first love, and familial frustration. Russell wants to do something important with the seagulls, but we are left with scraps.
The best pieces maintain a strong undercurrent of otherworldly tension. “The New Veterans” is a capable interpretation of what regret and memory means to a modern soldier come home, and the masseuse who attempts to help him recover. It drags a bit but is full of life and depth. An even better example of the author’s skill comes through in “Proving Up,” set amidst early American homesteading. The life of a family struggling to create an identity around house and home in the harsh Midwest feels alien yet tangible, with good drama that edges on horror.
The best story may be the last, because it has that delicate Russell balance of grounded and unreal. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is the story you came for: it grabs from the first unsettling descriptions of a scarecrow, as told through the remembrances of a high school boy. The murky humanity explored throughout is fodder for a fall day, and does for scarecrows what “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” does for its title creatures. These two stories are great bookends to a strange, colorful, challenging collection of stories, which is what I had hoped to experience. I’m confident Karen Russell will continue to come into her own.