Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove is her third book, following her first novel Swamplandia!, that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her stories have been featured in a myriad of literature magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories. The titles of this and her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s School for Werewolves, aptly convey the pure delight glowing in every paragraph.
Russell’s stories are quirky in the best way. She twists standard tropes or archetypes and presents them in thought-provoking or hilarious situations (or both). To wit, the story “The Barn at the End of Our Term” depicts American presidents reincarnated as horses in the same barn. The story follows Rutherford B. Hayes, and the other equine Commander-in-Chiefs such as Dwight Eisenhower, as they attempt to figure out if they are in heaven, hell or even the U Part political satire. As the horses grant themselves such positions as “Spokehorse of the Western Territories,” the short story also manages to be a tale on handling death. Hayes tragically believes his wife is trapped in the body of a sheep on the farm in the same vein he is trapped as a horse. He trains the sheep to follow him with carrots, leading to funny and depressing moments of him realizing he is alone.
This is just one of eight mesmerizing short stories, each overflowing with charm and talent. Russell incorporates fantastical elements into each story to varying degrees. Some, such as reincarnated presidential horses, are outright fantasy. Others are casually fantastic in that they either take a symbolic role or happen in the background. This latter is used in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” a coming-of-age tale about a blossoming teenage romance. The seagulls scavenge objects from the future, changing the present. The protagonist can reclaim the present by discovering the stolen objects in a tree. But this is mostly used symbolically as a sub-plot to his maturity as he courts the girl of his dreams.
It is a grim magic that dominates Russell’s prose. In “The New Veterans,” a congressional bill creates a system for veterans of the Iraq War to receive free massages. The story revolves around a massage therapist who takes on her first veteran patient. This patient had a vivid tattoo inked on his back that depicts the day in Iraq when his friend died in an IED explosion on a mission to deliver goods to a local farmer. Or, at least, the patient thinks the friend died. As the veteran visits more frequently, the massage therapist finds she is able to change the tattoo with her hands, which adjusts his memory of that day. Other stories like “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” are equally as haunting in their symbolism.
Despite the fact the author handles vampires and time-traveling seagulls, none of the stories ever seem implausible. They are woven by a deft hand into seamless settings that are believable. The situations are fantastic, the characters are realistic.
Russell is able to gradually shift the tone like a musical piece that transitions from a major to a minor chord. What starts off as an apparently simple story with a fun premise can end with a heartbreaking character climax. It is a testament to her abilities as an author that Russell juggles disparate elements of a story into a delightful menagerie of eclectic characters and plots that keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove marked the first time I ever found myself cheering for a group of women who were transformed by a mystical tea into silkworm-human hybrids as they descended on their jailer. And I cannot wait to read more of Russell’s beautifully twisted tales.