While I was on vacation this summer, I had the pleasure of reading Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! If you haven’t checked that book out yet, I would really recommend it: it’s alternatively hilarious and depressing, has an amazing sense of place and time, and the insistence on using the exclamation point every time the Swamplandia! park is named makes me chuckle even now. So it was with great anticipation I dug into Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second book of short stories, and on the whole I was not disappointed in the slightest. It really makes me want to check out her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
The worlds Russell conjures in the eight stories featured here are similar to our own, but each is off-kilter in a specific way that recalls the best works of Stephen King. Of these, my favourites were “Reeling for the Empire”, “Proving Up”, and “The Barn at the End of Our Term”. “Reeling for the Empire” is a creepy, David Cronenberg meets Mike Mignola-inflected story of a group of young women who metamorphose into silk-bearing worm-people for the good of the Empire of Japan in the early Nineteenth Century. Coming after the titular “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, “Reeling” proves that Russell is capable of working with the inborn ideas readers have about “monsters”, in basically any place or time you can give her.
The haunting “Proving Up” would not look out of place next to Cormac McCarthy’s works, as a young man attempts to formally stake his family’s claim on Western land through the use of a strange bit of legal trickery. It gives us a beautifully stark portrayal of 1800s homesteaders, always walking the razor’s edge, one bad harvest away from failure, or worse, death.
My favourite story in the collection is “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, which posits that a horse farm is actually the final resting place for the spirits of United States presidents, who continue their political machinations even when turned equine. Our viewpoint character is Rutherford B. Hayes, now a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare”, who attempts to stave off the madness that threatens to take over his horsey existence while pining after his wife Lucy, who may have been reincarnated into the body of a sheep. Again Russell’s sense of humour is omnipresent, as the various presidents scheme and assign titles to one another while attempting to parse the motives of their seeming owner Fitzgibbons, and his delightful niece Lucy, who likes to ride the horseys and brush them and give them apples … and you get the point. Delightful.
I was not as enthused about some of the other pieces collected here, especially the title story which I felt was a little too oblique in its use of vampire mythology (although the image of the creatures sustaining themselves off of lemons is pretty indelible). Overall, though, this is a fantastically strange collection of unforgettable stories, well worth checking out.