Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I don’t think I’ve ever written about St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves on this blog, but a review of Swamplandia! is here.

I’m a little shocked that I managed to write an entire piece on Russell without spending half of it gushing about her prose; even now I’m tempted to quote favourite passages, but they’re never as overwhelming when dragged out of context as one would want them to be.

From this weekend’s Left of Cool column:

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Karen Russell was still in her early twenties in 2007 when her first book, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, was published. A collection of odd, often fantastic short stories (the title story is about exactly what it says it is about), one of the things St Lucy’s Home … often returned to was the theme of childhood—of being on the verge of that transition from child to adult. Of finding one’s place in a world that is strange, not only because that is what adolescence is like, but because all of Russell’s worlds are strange. This space between child and adult is something that Russell seems to enjoy exploring. Her debut novel Swamplandia!, published in 2011, rests its shattering climactic moment on the cusp of innocence and experience*.

Childhood and its end come up several times in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second collection of short stories (and third book). “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” is about a summer in the life of an awkward young man, complete with family woes, unrequited love and worryingly intelligent seagulls. It’s a story that feels very much of a piece with those in St Lucy’s Home  and it’s unsurprising when the copyright page reveals that it was first published in 2009. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” and “Proving Up” both have teenaged protagonists face horrifying things. And the idea of youth forms a part of “The New Veterans”, published in Granta’s Betrayal issue earlier this year. “The New Veterans” has a middle-aged massage therapist literally working the painful memories out of a much younger soldier and taking them upon herself.

If the line between child and adult is something that Russell often revisits, a number of these stories are also concerned with another form of transformation; the line between human and monster. The title story concerns Magreb and Clyde, two aging vampires who have lived lifetimes staving off their hunger for blood and the necessity of becoming the sort of monsters that stories make of them (as well as their vulnerability to such stories). “Reeling for the Empire” has young girls literally transformed into human-silkworm hybrids. And yet Clyde is never as vulnerable, or as human, as when he kills, and it’s as they become less and less human that the silk women unite and organise themselves against their exploiters. The teenaged characters in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” are simultaneously young and vulnerable, and capable of horrific things, and our hearts ache most for them when they’re at their worst. And surely there’s something sinister about Derek Zeiger in “The New Veterans”, once he has lost the awful memory of his friend’s death?

Then there are the US presidents transformed into horses in “The Barn at the End Of Our Term”, and marine food chains turned into spectator sports in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”. Russell usually shows respect for the fantastic elements of her stories. She resists the temptation to reduce them to metaphor—in these stories tattoos can have lives of their own; vampires who can change into bats really do exist; the genetically modified workers of “Reeling for the Empire” are not just ideas but have real, insectoid bodies described in often unpleasant detail.

The stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove span a period of about six years, and have all been published elsewhere before. As a result there’s no real sense of the collection as a unified whole, though Russell often revisits the same set of themes and ideas. This doesn’t work in the collection’s favour—it results in a sense of sameness that doesn’t feel deliberate or structured. It’s an odd complaint to make about a collection that is made up of a number of strong individual short stories, but Vampires in the Lemon Grove feels to me like less than the sum of its parts. Yet the flashes of brilliance, when they come, more than make up for this.

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* I allude to this moment in the Swamplandia! review I link to above, but I think it’s important to that book that it not be discussed prior to a first reading (and please consider this a spoiler alert). Part of the reason the book works as well as it does, at least from this angle, is that we know Russell as a writer of adolescents in sometimes-magical worlds. Swamplandia! is never outrightly magical but it’s always potentially so- it’s always possible that something supernatural is going on, that Ossie really is meeting with a ghost, but we don’t see this, we don’t know. And so as long as it is possible that the entrance to the Underworld is in the Everglades, and that the Bird Man is taking Ava there, it’s easy not to think of the other possibilities, particularly when they are possibilities that wouldn’t occur to our child narrator. And then that horrible climactic moment: the Bird Man has been lying, and the adult reader is reminded that there are other reasons a grown man might want to spirit a young girl away to an isolated spot. Ava is raped while the reader is still in her head; there is no magic or if it is it isn’t here.

All of which only goes to show that Russell should be in some ways considered a horror writer- that moment in Swamplandia! is one of the most viscerally terrifying things I’ve read.

One Comment to “Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

  1. Glad to know there’s something interesting in this one. I’m going to be reading this collection soon, and I’ve heard mixed things about it. Well, actually, I guess this post is just another one of those mixed things.

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