You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead, your next stop: Karen Russell’s third book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
Sound familiar? At 31, Russell wasn’t even born when Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone transfixed millions of Americans every Friday night from 1959-1964. But she shares in the show’s legacy, its groundbreaking combination of genres — sci fi, fantasy, horror, fiction and suspense — that portrayed ordinary people crossing a threshold into the extraordinary.
A sixth sense seems to steer Russell, who has built a literary reputation by locating the uncanny in the most improbable places. A home for wayward girls became a finishing school for the daughters of werewolves in her debut short-story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.
In her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, Swamplandia! a dilapidated theme park on an island off the Florida coast yielded a Southern gothic tragicomedy about a family of alligator wrestlers and their call-and-response with the spirit realm.
In this new group of eight stories, Russell once again peers through her color-it-weird kaleidoscope to report on characters trapped in upside-down, looking-glass worlds. Unlike, say, Oz or Wonderland, these places look familiar at first — though we’re obviously not in south Florida anymore. A Miami native who has set much of her fiction in her home state, Russell casts a wider net this time around, into the bleak landscapes of Nebraska and Wisconsin, the far shores of Australia, Japan and Italy.
In the title story, a centuries-old vampire uneasily probes the cracks in his relatively young marriage. Since learning that the old legends are hogwash — he’s visible in mirrors, holy water doesn’t burn him, he needn’t drink blood or sleep in a coffin — his eternal life has looked almost normal. Until the day his bored wife abruptly transforms into a bat and he is afraid to follow suit — and terrified not to.
Russell’s sensuous, crystalline language draws us further in with every sentence:
I walk beneath a chandelier of furry bodies, heartbeats wrapped in wings the color of rose petals or corn silk. Breath ripples through each of them, a tiny life in its translucent envelope.
Outside of two comic pieces, humor takes a backseat in this collection. Subtler emotional currents flow through the stories — grief, guilt, loss of innocence, helplessness — and irony is almost entirely absent. But the darker, more sinister scenarios and characters go further to illustrate underlying themes of loneliness and loss, and to question what it means to be human.
Russell freely admits her debt to contemporary writers of fantasy — Stephen King, George Saunders and Kelly Link. But echoes of a more vintage macabre can be seen in stories like “The New Veterans,” a Ray Bradbury-inspired tale of an Iraq War vet whose lifelike tattoo may hold a dangerous key to his PTSD.
The cackling, knowing seagulls whose peculiar nests reveal the future hail from the same tribe as Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” And a group of mutant factory workers evoke Kafka’s Gregor Samsa — or even filmdom’s radioactive Mothra.
As she did in Swamplandia! by including the 1930s dredging of the Everglades and the swamp’s Native American past, history is another way Russell wields her magic wand. Even her most whimsical work is grounded in solid fact. The 11 presidents reincarnated as horses in “The Barn at the End of Our Terms” aren’t just a stable of snorting pintos and Percherons, but baffled former statesmen worried about their legacies.
The sodbuster families in “Proving Up” have “survived the grasshoppers of 1868, got hailed out twice, burned corn for fuel,” and now, due to their suicidal refusal to leave drought-ravaged Nebraska, face starvation. Russell uses a Donner Party-style blizzard to build suspense as a teenage boy braves the storm and the very real specter of cannibalism.
“Reeling for the Empire,” in which factory girls unwittingly drink a tea that transforms them into insect-like creatures, is based on Japan’s exploitation of female workers during its industrial revolution. Yet the horror Russell paints is delicate, everyday and dreadful, as when two new arrivals at the silkworm factory are given human food to eat:
We all sit on the opposite side of the room and watch them chew with a dewy nostalgia that disgusts me even as I find myself ogling their long white gingers on their chopsticks, balls of rice. The salt and fat smells of their food make my eyes ache. When we eat the mulberry leaves, we lower our new faces to the floor.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove deserves more than one reading, for the lush pleasures of Russell’s prose and because the stories unearth a discomfort as exotic as it is familiar. The shock of a new body. A memory of something that never happened. A loved one whose words are suddenly unintelligible. These are nightmares we recognize, having on occasion dreamed them ourselves.
Read more about Swamplandia! here. For a brief look at St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, the Guardian has an excerpt from the title story. And here is one of my favorites from St. Lucy’s, “Haunting Olivia.”