HERE'S THE LAMEST review equation in the world: Musician X + Filmmaker Y = Writer Z. So, forgive me this transgression (I just can’t help myself): Karen Russell is like some weird, perfect blend of singer-songwriter Neko Case and Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki. Dreamy and gleeful and muscular, Russell, like these other artists, succeeds on her own terms: she’s a swaggering world-builder, a center-tent carnival barker, a wild-eyed curator of all things fantastic. Her half-mad tales give breath to an exuberant chorus of confused souls. And she’s not tied down to any genre. She summons influences as diverse as H.P. Lovecraft and Joy Williams, Shirley Jackson and Michael Chabon, Italo Calvino and Carson McCullers, Mark Richard and Ray Bradbury, and weaves it all — as only a young marvel can — into something wholly new, something majestic and real.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s third book, following debut story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and debut novel Swamplandia!, both widely recognized as stunning inventions. It features eight stories, each shot through with dizzying language, in which we’re introduced to lemon-munching vampires, silkworm-girls, seagull armies, apocalyptic pioneers, ex-presidents reincarnated as horses, the perilous practice of Antarctic tailgating, a massage therapist who inherits the memories of a tortured young veteran, and a scarecrow that haunts a posse of young bullies. Russell’s characters — always somewhere between tender and vicious — are lovingly, carefully rendered. Full of magic and myth, they’re our guides through the strangest and darkest stretches of Russell’s heaven-bright imagination. And they’re funny. Man, are they funny. They whimper and whelp and wail and beg to be danced with.
The title story concerns two vampires who, coming to understand that none of what’s believed to be true about vampires is actually true, have sought out relief all across the globe in everything from mint tea to jackal’s milk to Cherry Coke floats. They’ve discovered their oasis in Sorrento, Italy, at a dead nun’s lemonade stand: sinking their teeth into perfect Italian lemons relieves their thirst! Masquerading now as a typical nonno, narrator Clyde survived for years on human blood before meeting Magreb, who taught him the truth about their kind. Sunlight was fine. Garlic didn’t hurt them in the least. No need to sleep in a coffin. Human blood was not a necessity. At first, Clyde felt beautifully free, but now — older, unable to metamorphose into a bat like Magreb and having settled into a boring routine with her — he feels neutered, lost. In Russell’s hands, it all translates into a deeply human meditation on addiction and commitment.
“Reeling for the Empire” deals with a group of girls who have been given a tea that’s transformed them into silk-producers, a hybrid human/silkworm. They’re factory workers, overseen by an Agent who is willing to off them if they stop producing. The narrator, Kitsune, begins to understand the extent of their powers and knows they must reclaim their futures. When the Agent comes for them in the end, he sees white-faced girls with “sunken noses that look partially erased.” Having almost fully evolved, their eyes are “insect-huge” and their “[spines] and elbows are incuba...read more