In Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, it’s evident that Russell’s fiction has grown and evolved with her career. Many of the stories in her first collection, St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised By Wolves, while imaginative, concerned adolescence and coming of age. The protagonists were younger, and the stories were certainly more imbued with a sense of lightness beyond the dark. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a darker, more adult book; many of these stories end with a chill.
Take the title story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” A vampire and his vampire wife seek to quench their thirst, having discovered that the lemons from a specific Italian lemon grove satiate them better than any drink they have found; long ago, they realized that blood does nothing for a vampire, the myth mistaken. For the main character, this realization came too late. He had been killing for years, thinking himself a monster. Becoming complacent, he longs for the days when he was feared. Beautiful, haunting, and sensory — one can almost taste the bitter lemons — “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is tinged with a sense of longing and desperation.
In “Reeling for the Empire,” female silkworm factory workers are forced to drink a tea which turns them into human silkworms; when their bodies fill with silk, they must hook themselves to a machine and spin the silk out of them or else they become sick. The women’s oppression is tangible, and when, at the story’s end, they are able to use their condition to free themselves, the relief is one of the most palpable emotions I have ever felt in a story.
“Proving Up” is a terrifying story of a family’s quest to hold title to their land in the American West. Because the Homestead Act requires that their dwellings have a window for the family to be considered owners of their land, among other requirements, the community of settlers share a window among them come inspection time. Miles, a young man whose family hopes to pass inspection this time around, is given the task of riding from house to house with the window, ahead of the inspector. But when an early snow starts falling, Miles is forced to stop, and he meets a man in the snow whose hunger is for more than land. Definitely not recommended to read before bed, “Proving Up” is one of the scariest stories I have ever read.
In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” eleven American presidents wake up as horses after their death in a strange barn on a strange farm. Rutherford is the main character; obsessed with finding his wife in what he believes to be the afterlife, he latches onto a sheep. Absurd and clever, there are certainly more questions than answers in this story.
Another absurdist tale in the collection is the shorter story “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.” There are eleven rules — rule one is “make friends with your death,” and rule two is “plan to arrive early” — that Dougbert Shackleton gives, pamphlet-style, to ensure a successful, safe Food Chain Games experience. There are two teams in these games: Team Whale and Team Krill. Shackleton roots for Team Krill, “the underdog.” Hilarious and, despite Shackleton’s insistence that the games are a sometimes deadly sport of which to be a fan, one of the lighter stories in the collection.
In “The New Veterans,” a massage therapist discovers that she can alter a young veteran’s tattoo of a fallen comrade and alter his memories in the process. She struggles with the right decision, wanting nothing more than to see the young man free of his pain. Raises some interesting questions about memory as well as about trauma and whether it might be better to forget.
The final story in the collection, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” concerns a group of bully boys who discover a lifelike scarecrow which looks exactly like the former classmate who they used to pick on. The narrator is unreliable, keeping facts from the reader as well as his friends, and so the puzzle of the story becomes figuring out what exactly happened before Eric’s disappearance from the town. An unsettling story about redemption and consequences.
Also included in the collection is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” a nod back to Russell’s first collection: another coming-of-age story in which a boy struggling with family problems, future problems, and girl problems discovers that seagulls are determining some of his life events for him. Strange, worth reading, but not one of my favorites, and not one of Russell’s best.
Other than “The Seagull Army,” however, this collection is populated with top of the line stories, most of which I now consider favorites. While her first collection, with the exception of “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” left me lukewarm, this collection left me with a sense that I had, unlike the vampires in the title story, finally quenched a literary thirst.