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, a man named Fitzgibbons who runs the barn where the protagonists are trapped. She also taps into the horrifying world of pre-adults that she has showcased in both Wolves and Swamplandia!, and is also again fond of the existential implications of worlds seemingly outside of time or geography. The prose is, as is typical of Russell’s work, luminous, specific, and lovely.
They flow from cliffs that glow like pale chalk, expelled from caves in the seeming billions. Their drop is steep and vertical, a black hail. Sometimes a change in weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea. It’s three hundred feet to the lemon grove, six hundred feet to the churning foam of the Tyrrhenian. At the precipice, they soar upward and crash round the green tops of trees… up close, the bats’ spread wings are alien membranes—fragile, like something internal flipped out. (from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”)
Tucked inside the lyricism is a wry sense of humor; laugh-out-loud moments that sneak up and surprise you, even in the grimmest of Vampires’ offerings.
Rutherford arches his neck toward her outstretched hand. Freckles of light gloat across his patchy hindquarters. He licks the girl’s palm according to a code that he’s worked out: — — — —, which means that he is Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the nineteenth president of the United States of America, and that she should alert the local officials.
“Ha-ha!” the girl laughs. “That tickles.”(from “The Barn at the End of Our Term”)
Cousin Steve was participating in a correspondence course with a beauty school in Nevada, America, and to pass his Radical Metamorphosis II course, he decided to dye Nal’s head a vivid blue and then razor the front into tentacle-like bangs. “Radical,” Nal said drily as Steve removed the foil…. Nal looks like he is going stoically to his death in the grip of a small blue octopus.(from “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”)
The stories are not without their problems. One that seems to resurface over and over again in this collection — as sometimes happens in speculative fiction that hinges on 1:1 magic-to-real-world metaphor ratios — is that of the symbolically tidy ending. The eponymous story that opens the collection uses the blood-lust of vampirism as a stand-in for characters struggling with, and failing to defeat, addiction — emotionally wrenching, yes, but also done to death within the genre. “Reeling for the Empire,” which combines a Marxist horror show about silkworm-girls with smart commentary about the oppressed being complicit in their own oppression, includes an implied butterfly transformation. Or “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which US presidents — not all of them, and not in any particular order — wake up as reincarnated horses. That story ends with the protagonist, Rutherford B. Hayes, leaping over a fence to freedom. I’d feel bad about revealing these particular “twists” if not for the fact that they are bluntly and frustratingly obvious, as if Russell knew where the stories should go but didn’t quite push hard enough. There are few places for these problems to hide in short fiction, and so they seem glaring
The standout stories in Vampires are undoubtedly “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” where Russell indulges in an almost Oulipean constraint, presenting the world of an Antarctic food chain as one would a Midwest football championship game. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” taps into the place where Russell always seems to be at her absolute best: the genre of the bildungsroman. She has a knack for finding that sweet spot between empathy and teenage sociopathy, at the intersection of stupidity and pure revelation that defines that particular age group. She is always strongest when her characters are coming of age (though Russell’s teenagers and children have the unmistakable pallor of adulthood that is so common in non-YA fiction — they use words like ersatz and sometimes make observations that are well beyond their years). “Proving Up” revisits the haunted frontier world of the best story in Wolves, “From Children’s Reminiscences of Westward Migration.” “The New Veterans,” a story published in the most recent issue of Granta, beautifully tackles the grief, guilt, and agony of soldiers returned from war, mashed up with the sinister, tattooed horror of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” Vampires may be a little uneven, but just as the imperfect stories stand out, so do these in their imagination and risk-taking.
Whenever I am recommended a new writer, and I have a choice between a novel and a collection of stories, I will always pick up the collection first. Even if the writer is a natural novelist, and the stories are some sort of demented, temporary experiment, or leftovers from an MFA program, or an editor trying to stretch a writer’s appeal between novel projects, it always gives me a sense of the writer’s range and interest. Collections are full of possibilities. I can see the author playing around in the pages. And so Vampires in the Lemon Grove, despite its flaws, ultimately works in a way that Swamplandia! did not. It is bold and magical, funny and heartbreaking and smart. Not quite strange enough to be called “weird,” perhaps, but if she keeps writing like this, it’s only a matter of time before the stories tip off the edge and into that bizarre world around which she is circling.
There is a larger literary phenomenon at work around the publication of Vampires in the Lemon Grove. It was recently cited by the New York Times as evidence of a renaissance in short fiction — partially fueled, Leslie Kaufman argued, by the rise in e-book readers and Kindle Singles and literary magazines. Salon’s Laura Miller was quick to write a rebuttal, pointing out that the writers who have been selling critically successful literary fiction have also been publishing best-selling novels, and that short-story collections, in fact, do not sell well at all.
Many, many novelists also write short fiction, especially when they’re starting out and not least because most writing workshops and MFA programs find stories easier to work with than novels. Naturally, they’d like to publish their work. So, there’s nothing particularly remarkable or new about best-selling novelists writing stories or wanting to publish collections. In fact, best-selling novelists are frequently the only writers who are able get collections published because publishers can hope to capture some of the readership won by the authors’ novels.
Short fiction abounds in magazines and on e-readers, but editors and agents are hardly clamoring to take on collections, at least without novels attached. Collections (not novels-in-stories, but actual collections) are often published as a favor to a writer who has already given an editor a novel, or an attempt to extend the audience when a novel is particularly successful. The only place where this is not true is the aforementioned world of genre fiction, where short stories, alongside novels, are the basic unit of publication — they are given prizes and actively sought after by markets that pay for them at professional rates. Russell’s work, both in style and in content, would be completely at home there, but instead she remains something of an anomaly in the world of New Yorker literary fiction: a writer of non-realist short stories. And so she is one of the lucky ones: she is going to be able to continue to grow as a writer over a long career, hopefully focusing on the short fiction that she is so good at writing and so lucky to publish, improving with every book. If she keeps publishing volumes of short fiction, she may do what the industry wants: bring readers to the genre in droves, and encourage an actual, not imagined, revival in the short form.