A vampire living on lemons instead of blood, a girl turning into a silkworm, dead presidents who find themselves reincarnated as horses, a bullies' victim transmuted into a sinister scarecrow: Karen Russell's new short story collection teems with transformations.
As wildly imaginative as the tales in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are, though, each of them also resonates with the realities of the human heart.
This is the second story collection from Russell, a Miami native; her first was St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves in 2007. Her dazzling debut novel, Swamplandia! (published when she was 29), made a critical splash in 2011 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove displays the strengths of Swamplandia! in concentrated form. Russell has a deft hand at weaving magical realism into the everyday, a gift for creating warmly believable characters, and an ability to charm us with whimsy and chill us with darkness all in the same story, and sometimes in the same sentence.
The title story is narrated by Clyde, a centuries-old vampire in decline, living in a seaside Italian lemon grove. His once-fearsome nature is now reduced to fantasies of flashing his fangs to scare rude teenagers, but what's really breaking his heart is his estrangement from Magreb, his wife of more than 100 years and also "the first and only other vampire I'd ever met."
Yet it was she who persuaded him he didn't need to drink blood, that it was an addiction they both could find a replacement for — the lemons, "a vampire's analgesic."
"Because I love her," Clyde says, "my hunger pangs have gradually mellowed into a comfortable despair. Sometimes I think of us as two holes cleaved together, two twin hungers." But with those hungers stilled, their marriage is hollowed out as well. Fantastic as the story is, it's also an achingly human portrait of codependence.
Proving Up is one of the most realistic stories in the book, and one of the most powerful. At first it seems like a cousin of Little House on the Prairie, with its Nebraska sodbuster family sending their young son on a comic mission to ferry a single glass window from one farm to another to satisfy a federal inspector who approves land grants. (Though the rough houses are dug into the earth, each must have one glass window.) But 11-year-old Miles' chipper narration subtly, then forcefully reveals what lies beneath our sunny, simplistic image of the 19th century frontier: terrible danger, loss and madness.
Another young person goes on a perilous mission in Reeling for the Empire. In the rapidly industrializing Japan of a century ago, Kitsune signs up to work in a silk factory in order to support her family. Her work turns out to be something much more horrifying than she bargained for — yet the story rises to a transcendent metamorphosis.
A couple of the briefest stories are lightest in tone. The Barn at the End of Our Term gives us 11 former U.S. presidents gobsmacked at finding themselves in the bodies of horses — and even more disgruntled at their inability to either explain or control the situation.
Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is a hilarious guide for beyond-extreme sports fans who want to cheer on Team Krill against Team Whale (talk about a losing record). This is not tailgating for amateurs, the narrator warns: "Rule One: Make friends with your death."
Russell is especially skillful with younger characters, such as the hapless Australian teenager in The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979, who finds a magical way to win back a girl he has a crush on from his popular brother, and the bully confronting the unexpected consequences of his cruelty in The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.
Youth and age collide in mysterious ways in The New Veteran. Beverly is a lonely middle-aged woman whose work as a massage therapist is the center of her life: "Each body, Beverly believes, has a secret language candled inside it, something inexpressibly bright that can be transmitted truly only via touch."
But her healing powers may not be enough for Derek Zeiger ("rhymes with tiger"), a young, recently returned Iraq war veteran.
Zeiger is under treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the reason why is written on his skin: A spectacularly detailed tattoo that covers his back (the first thing Beverly see when she meets him) depicts an Iraqi village, the Diyala River, a squad of soldiers — and the IED attack that killed Zeiger's fellow soldier Arlo Mackey.
It's no ordinary tattoo, as Beverly discovers. Kneading Zeiger's skin and listening to his recounting, she begins to think she can reshape the picture, and the past. It's a merciful impulse, but it carries its own perils.
In this story and throughout Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell once again marries the moving and the marvelous.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.