DURING A READING at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore last month, Karen Russell described the process of writing a novel as “kind of like scaling Mt. Everest and passing by your own bones on the way.” If so, then the short story collection — especially one comprised of stories written over many years, during which a writer is constantly leaving behind one skin for another — is a perfect graveyard of discarded selves. Haunted, one hopes, with the parts of the stories that mystified the writer or made her struggle, the places where she built up and tore down each story’s mythology until it stuck.
And haunted is a good word to describe the stories in Karen Russell’s new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. These stories — published over a six-year period, with many of them pre-dating Russell’s Pulitzer-Prize-nominated novel, Swamplandia! — are suffused with the things that haunt our everyday lives: bullies and their tormented victims, abuses of women and workers at the hands of their masters, the scars of war, lingering depressions, poverty, joblessness, unlived futures, shiftless siblings, unrequited loves.
The hauntings of ordinary life wrapped up in speculative unease — from full-out monsters like human-silkworm hybrids and vampires, to more subtle terrors — seem to be Karen Russell’s bread-and-butter, and they are on full, luscious display in this book.
The return to short fiction is good for Russell. Despite its Pulitzer nomination, Swamplandia!, her first novel, was weaker than its predecessor St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves — unfocused, meandering. Russell seems like a natural short story writer, a sprinter in an industry full of marathon runners. She loves a punchy concept (food chain as competitive sport! Presidents reincarnated as horses!), she flirts with formal conceits, and she manages to use the brevity of short stories for their intended purpose: as sharp little knives that do a lot of damage before you even know what you’re up against.
In her novel, she seemed as if she was pushing what was a strong story from Wolves into a far bulkier and weaker piece (an example, I think, of a phenomenon that fantasy writer Lynn Abbey once called “novels that really are short stories filled with a lot of helium”). The stories in Vampires, while not perfect, are always doing something interesting in their tight spaces and showcasing a range of her fiction predilections and preoccupations, each more fascinating than the last.
The stories in Vampires are entirely fabulist, often tapping into the spirit of writers who are mostly unheard of outside of so-called genre circles, such as World Fantasy Award-winner Kij Johnson. (Readers who enjoy Vampires in the Lemon Grove but came to it vis-à-vis its mainstream profile should check out Johnson’s debut collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees, which came out from Small Beer Press last year). Russell is interested in a world that is real but flipped sideways, turned in some way that exposes its weirder edge, its speculative possibilities. She is enamored with tales plagued by terrifying authority figures that loom sinisterly at the edge of the plot like thunderheads: the Inspector, the Agent,...read more