Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (A.A. Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).
Karen Russell acts as a spirit guide to her readers as she takes them on an incredible journey through the bizarre, fabulous, chilling, and horrifying world of Vampires in the Lemon Grove. There is nothing to fear, though, in Russell’s third book and her second short-story collection; this Pulitzer-Prize finalist is always in control of the macabre, holding our hands as she leads us down dark passages and through shadows. The author of Swamplandia! takes us to places we’ve never been before and would not dare pass through alone.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove features eight extremely imaginative fables where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In each one, Russell shows a depth and maturity that belie her thirty-one years. From the seemingly innocuous “small, kindly Italian grandfather” of the titular story to the young masseuse with a healing touch in “The New Veterans,” each story is more intricate and multifaceted, more complex and multilayered, than the next.
For Clyde, the main character in Russell’s first story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” lemons can be tantalizing if you are a bloodsucker. Clyde and Magreb have settled in the small Italian village of Santa Francesca, where tourists flock to see the famous bat caves. The caves are not what drew the vampire couple to the village and nor was it the promise of vacationers. Clyde and Magreb have given up drinking blood; instead, they stanch their cravings through lemons. They’ve traveled everywhere and tried everything—“fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls”—but only the lemons give them any reprieve. It’s a nice life living in the bat caves until Clyde finds he can no longer change form. “I can’t shudder myself out of this old man’s body. I can’t fly anymore,” Russell writes. Clyde has forgotten how to fly. She may be writing about vampires, but this story expresses so much about aging.
In “Reeling for the Empire,” Russell invents a group of Japanese girls, “silkworm-workers,” who eventually rebel. Using textured precision, she invents an insular world in which reeling for the empire is a revered calling yet painful beyond measure. Russell is like the silk spinners in her story except she weaves together a beautiful tapestry of transcendent tales.
Nowhere is that ability more powerful than in the story titled “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” perhaps her best in the collection. Carrying pieces of fruit, a little girl walks into a barn and approaches a horse. “Hi horsies,” she calls to him and to the other horses in the stalls around him. These are no ordinary steeds, however; they are dead presidents. The horse “licks the girl’s palm according to a code that he’s worked out – – – -, which means that he is Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the nineteenth president of the United States of America, and that she should alert the local officials.” Hayes cannot decide if he and eleven other deceased presidents are in heaven or hell and spends his days longing for his wife, Lucy, the “first First Lady,” and sugar cubes. One day, James Garfield bolts. Because they are ex-presidents, the horses yearn to escape their confined lives just as Garfield did. John Adams takes the lead in their plan to flee: “But we can’t live out our afterlives as common beasts,” Adams proclaims. “There must be some way back to Washington! I am still alive, and I am certainly no horse.” A revolution is thus born.
Two of Russell’s stories symbolize our faith in forces larger than ourselves, universal influences we do not nor cannot understand. Nal, a boy with a crush on his brother’s girlfriend, finds a seagull’s nest in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” Nothing is mundane about this discovery. The nest contains artifacts that have shaped Nal’s life and the lives of those around him. In “The New Veterans,” my favorite of Russell’s fables, Beverly, a masseuse, works on the back of an Iraq War veteran. A large tattoo covers the vet’s back. This pageant of ink is like a map of all he experienced in warfare. When Beverly puts her hands on the soldier’s skin to alleviate his pain, she somehow alters the tattoo’s landscape. It is if her hands cannot only heal but can change and even erase her client’s past. Both Nal and Beverly commune with the universe in their own unique ways, just as Russell herself connects with readers through her pitch-perfect prose. Her words alter us.
Menacing, even chilling and horrifying, undercurrents run through two of Russell’s tales: “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” Evil lurks just over the shoulder or at least just over the next hill in “Proving Up,” set during Homestead-era Nebraska. Young Miles Zegner mounts his horse and rides over to a neighboring farm. As Russell illustrates, life is difficult for the Zegner family. Drought, hail, and locus mean most families barely survive, much less thrive. Miles carries something special with him: a glass window. The Homestead of 1862 required “every claim shanty or dugout must have a real glass window”; only then would the land rightfully belong to the homesteader. The Zegners share the window with their neighbors so they can “prove up” when the Homestead inspector comes to call. Miles learns that windows sometimes show us things we do not want to see, like trees made of bone, dead sisters who “rise out of the sod, as tall as the ten-foot wheat,” and a man whose “eyes are bottomless.” A group of boys get much more than they bargained for when they bully a fellow student in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” This tale is Russell’s homage to the master of horror, Stephen King, and it shows. The boys find a “scarecrow boy,” part wax doll and part scarecrow with “glass eyes and sculpted features” in the local park. The boys are terrified by the doll’s uncanny resemblance to an epileptic boy who has vanished. Russell’s story is definitely a didactic one in this instance.
Of the eight tales, only one, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” was not to my liking. This story is less a narrative and more a set of rules expounded upon as Douglas Shackleton prepares to watch as “Team Krill” takes on “Team Whale,” complete with recipes. “Rule Five-A: If your wife leaves you for a millionaire motel-chain-owning douchebag fan of Team Whale, make sure you get your beloved mock-bioluminescent Team Krill eyestalks out of the trunk of her Civil before she takes off.” So different in tone and structure, it does not seem to fit with the rest of Russell’s collection and lacks the effect of the other tales.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove proves that the imagination of Karen Russell knows no bounds. Russell is wild, fierce, wise, assured, and, most of all, uninhibited. She just keeps getting better and better with everything she writes, whether it’s a sharp coming-of-age tale or a fabulous collection of fables. Russell is at her peak and will certainly take home a Pulitzer one day. What will this literary Wonder Woman do next? With Russell’s almost super-human creativity and talent, nothing is impossible.