by Karen Russell; Knopf, 2013; 243 pages; $24.95
Reading Karen Russell’s works is an experience like no other. They are imaginative, audacious, even impudent. But most of all they haunt us, finding daring ways to comment on our human fears with such generosity of spirit that we are comforted to have an author like Russell in our corner.
Her first collection is the brilliant “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Her extraordinary novel “Swamplandia!” is about the desperate search that growing up can be. In fact, that process infuses much of Russell’s writing and is the subject of some of her most eloquent work, especially many of the eight stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”
A young man who has “begun to sense that his life had jumped the rails” initiates a “seduction by proxy” and wonders if the “kleptoparasitic” tendencies of his life are harbingers of his doom. Another young man comes of age in the American West as he delivers a window to neighbors and finds a dark figure at journey’s end. And in one tale, the soul of Rutherford B. Hayes enters the body of a horse and discovers the souls of many other American presidents have done the same.
“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” tells the unsettling story of a scarecrow found in a city park, a scarecrow whose features resemble those of a recently bullied young schoolboy. In “The New Veterans,” a middle-aged massage therapist learns that “healing hurts sometimes” as she watches the tattoo on the back of a 25-year-old war veteran constantly change during their sessions together. The story is a brilliant rendering of the scars of regret that are sometimes left after losing the ones we love. A lethal parody of America’s obsession with sports is at the heart of “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” even as it becomes a sad commentary on one man’s inability to communicate.
The masterworks of the collection are “Reeling for the Empire” and “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”
In the former, a group of Asian immigrant girls transform into human silk worms as they are held captive in a silk factory. White hair covers their bodies and the newly transformed exact a horrific vengeance that echoes the sly wit of Edgar Allan Poe.
And in the title story, a vampire finds he is completely ill-suited for eternal life.
Karen Russell continues to dazzle with her extraordinary exploration of life’s transience. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” takes us to astonishing worlds while illuminating our own. Its real magic is that it is brave and haunting, even as it is deeply feral and astoundingly funny.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.