VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE
by Karen Russell
Fiction: Short stories
Knopf, Feb. 2013
Hardcover, 243 pages
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Karen Russell. I freaked the F out over Swamplandia! last spring, and I fell in love with Russell’s charming debut short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves a few weeks ago. In Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her brand new release, Russell amps up the weirdness, and it is delightful.
The title story is about a pair of vampires who live in an Italian lemon grove and have learned to suck lemons instead of blood. It’s a cute idea, but the story didn’t really do it for me, although I’m not sure if this is because of the actual quality of the story or a fear that Russell is pandering to a trend in writing about vampires.
Most of the stories, though, are bizarre and original and pulsing with energy. Take, for example, “Dougbert Schackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” the narrator of which discusses tips and etiquette for tailgating at the annual Whales vs. Krill game. It’s full of the macho bravado of sports, the fierce loyalty of fans, championing the underdogs, and… the proper way to bury your frozen, starved dead. It’s the shortest story in this collection, and by far the funniest.
Another highlight is “Reeling for the Empire,” in which young Japanese girls are sold to a factory to reel silk in support of the empire. However, what they don’t know when their fathers sign the contract is that each girl will be forced to drink a tea that will turn her into a half-girl-half-silkworm hybrid and then spend the rest of her days spinning silk through her fingers. It’s creepy as all get-out, and it looks at the cost of industry, child labor, female status, and transformation.
Unlike Russell’s previous stories, many of the pieces in this collection are tinged with horror. “Proving Up” is about a teenage boy on the frontier who sets off across the prairie to deliver a piece of window glass to his neighbors but gets trapped in a freak snowstorm. When the snow clears, he is confronted by the creepiest fellow, who smells of “putrescence, a mix of silage and marrow and a hideous sweetness, like the time a family of rats suffocated in our sod walls.” Things get darker and more, erm, undead from there, and it’s chilling.
The final story in the collection, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” is another creepy one. Let me just say that it involves New Jersey middle-school bullies, a missing classmate whom they used to pick on, and a mysterious scarecrow that looks exactly like the missing boy. I honestly had trouble sleeping the night after reading this with the final sentences echoing in my head.
But don’t worry, not all of the stories are total horror-fests. In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” we meet President Rutherford B. Hayes… reborn as a horse… in a barn full of horses that were U.S. Presidents in their former lives. The horses/presidents debate whether they are in heaven or hell or are still alive but transformed. It’s totally quirky and whimsical, and also kind of heartbreaking as Rutherford searches the farm for his dead wife, who he thinks has been reincarnated as a sheep.
The two remaining stories are kind of odd-balls. I can’t even tell you what “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” is about — something about seagulls putting objects from the future in the hollow of a tree, which changes this kid’s future? — and it’s definitely the weakest story of the collection. “The New Veterans” has a fascinating premise and presents interesting ideas about truth, memories, and bearing someone else’s pain, but it doesn’t need to go on for 60 pages.
All in all, I really enjoyed this collection. Karen Russell really goes all-in with the weirdness and fantasy and horror, and her knack for world-building and writing sparkling sentences is so much fun to read.