Book review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell

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START with a mustard seed of irrelevant fact. Scribble the name of the first American president’s wife to be referred to as the first lady and present it to Karen Russell.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories

By Karen Russell

Chatto &Windus, 259pp, £14.99

Tell her she has to write a story about this old dead guy and reincarnate him as a horse. Give her a couple of pencils. Put her in a locked room. Tie one arm behind her back. Give her the sniffles. Let her go after a modest interval and see what she comes up with: the hilarious, impossibly realised, even moving, story “The Barn at the End of Our Term.”

Or how about this? Instead of menses, drugged young girls in feudal Japan produce silk. We’d like 9,000 words, please. Blindfold Karen Russell. Make her compose wearing mittens, her only sustenance Red Bull and those mandarin orange Cutie things. See what happens: the exquisite “Reeling for the Empire” – first-rate, elegant horror.

Vampires, krill, a stolen rabbit renamed Saturday: Russell will make magic of them all. Give her a piece of glass wrapped in burlap and she’ll deliver “Proving Up,” set in Nebraska, in the desperate days of the 1860s and reminiscent in its seamlessness and strangeness of Kafka’s “Country Doctor.”

The more uncanny the situation, the more sensibly it is described. This is from the aforementioned “Reeling for the Empire” in Vampires in the Lemon Grove: “I’ll put it bluntly: we are all becoming reelers. Some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female. Some of the older workers’ faces are already quite covered with a coarse white fur, but my face and thighs stayed smooth for 20 days. In fact I’ve only just begun to grow the white hair on my belly. During my first nights and days in the silk-reeling factory I was always shaking. I have never been a hysterical person, and so at first I misread these tremors as mere mood; I was in the clutches of a giddy sort of terror, I thought. Then the roiling feeling became solid. It was the thread: a colour purling invisibly in my belly. Silk. Yards and yards of thin colour would soon be extracted from me by the Machine.”

But Russell is no coy, mannered mistress of the freaky. Much of the pleasure in reading her comes from the wily freshness of her language and the breezy nastiness of her observations. A bum has a long stirrup-shaped face and sprawls across his bench on a bed of newspapers like Cleopatra. The door knocker in an evil-looking yellow house is a filth-encrusted brass pineapple. Bats in a cave are “a chandelier of furry bodies, heartbeats wrapped in wings the colour of rose petals or corn silk.” A recently refurbished playground looks “like a madhouse. Padded swings, padded slides, padded gyms, padded seesaws and go-wheelies.”

That is the territory for a pack of young boys in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” Theirs is a world denatured and drear, their primary hobby beating up a new classmate, who is provocative in his ugliness and calm acceptance. When a secret is shared, the possibility of transformation 
(Flannery O’Connor would call it “grace”) arises for one boy but is eventually refused.

A grim, stupendous, unfavourable magic is at work in these stories. They are not chicly ironic or satiric and certainly not existentially or ethically curious (though punishment for childhood cruelty is pretty much self-inflicted and eternal in “The Graveless Doll”). The innocent do not fare well, not the funicular ticket girl in the title story nor the obedient boy attempting to deliver an all-important window in an unworldly blizzard over bone-strewn prairie. Only the broody lovelorn Rutherford, “a skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick,” is given (possibly) the serenity to know what lies even beyond life after death.

Russell is at her best fashioning rawly transfigured adolescents and animals. A “heat-demented cow” named Louma “chews slop with a look of ancient shock, her vexed eyes staring out from a white face. In truth, her eyes look a little like Ma’s.”

Adults in Russell’s worlds are non-contenders. If they’re not evil, they’re hapless or uncomprehending or depressed. One is summarily reduced to being a hunched shape flowing past “to enter a maple cavity” that the narrator can only assume to be “their bathroom.”

In 2011, Russell published Swamplandia!, a novel that enjoyed considerable acclaim and which she read from at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was distinctive in several ways, not the least of which was its being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the year that the board grumpily declined to bestow one. Her best work, however, remains for me that extraordinary debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – 10 astonishments inimitable in style and execution. It would be hard to top St. Lucy’s, and Vampires doesn’t. Many of the stories are marvellous, but the collection is marred by the inclusion of the overlong and uncharacteristically sentimental “New Veterans,” about a lonely, middle-aged masseuse who believes she can alter the deadly story depicted in a garish tattoo on a young soldier’s back, and the rather mundane tale “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” in which birds steal and conceal items from the past with great consequence for the future. In both stories, the fundamental situation is almost familiar, the intention becomes obvious. Perhaps it’s because the characters are older here, thoughts of war and closure and sex engage them, they question themselves, dithering, “Enough ... snap out of it, this is ridiculous, insane ...” The awful inconsequentiality of the real enfolds them and the unerringly knowing and mischievous planchette that unequivocally belongs to this writer, their creator, refuses to be employed.

The dangers that dwell in a good story collection are the occasional listless pup, the willing but weak sister. Readers may not notice overmuch. But Karen Russell has spoiled us. Her work has a velocity and trajectory that is little less than dazzling and a tough, enveloping, exhilarating voice that cannot be equalled. Sometimes not even by Karen Russell herself.