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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell's short stories go where the wild things are.

February 15, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove By Karen Russell Knopf Doubleday 256 pp.

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Reviewed by Stefan Beck for Barnes & Noble Review

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Crazy ideas are necessary to the creative process. Even a titan like Nathaniel Hawthorne had them, filling his "American Notebooks" with often hilariously ill-conceived writing prompts: "All the dead that had ever been drowned in a certain lake to arise," he wrote, followed by an even less promising idea: "The history of a small lake from the first, till it was drained." There were also "[a] very fanciful person, when dead, to have his burial in a cloud" and "[s]ome moderns to build a fire on Ararat with the remnants of the ark." Not last but arguably least: "A person to catch fire-flies, and try to kindle his household fire with them. It would be symbolical of something." Never mind what. Invent first, ask questions later.

Much of Karen Russell's early fiction seemed to emanate from this firefly impulse, this urge to indulge flights of whimsy and then to invest them with meaning after the fact. She has been widely praised for her creativity, but many stories in her debut collection – a talking Minotaur pulls a covered wagon westward; a boy uses a Zamboni to attack his philandering father and a female Yeti mascot – were more grating than enchanting. Zany plots, goofy names, exclamation points, and forced pathos were on the wane in her novel "Swamplandia!," but they were still insistent enough to make a serious reader gasp when the book nearly took the 2012 Pulitzer.

Now comes Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a collection that is, Pulitzer committee be damned, Russell's first good book. It is an excellent book. It has its moments of overreach, its grating excesses, but it is the book we were promised in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia! It earns its darkness, amounting to an update on E.T.A. Hoffman's tales, and a number of its stories elicit emotion and reflection in a way Russell's previous efforts signally didn't. Real boys and girls, men and women, have taken the place of storybook characters.

Stephen King loved Swamplandia! He will feel the deepest pangs of envy over "Reeling for the Empire," the second story in Vampires, in which patriotic Japanese girls are tricked into drinking a tea that makes them produce silk from their bodies. If the implicit allegory about prostitution and industrial exploitation is straightforward, the atmospherics and gory details are anything but. The climax, at once ghoulish and triumphant, puts the reader in mind of the kaidan genre introduced to Western readers by Lafcadio Hearn. It's a strange compliment, but a genuine one, to say that Russell's imagination really is capable of inducing nausea and terror. 

Like "From Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration" – the Minotaur story mentioned at the beginning of this review – Russell's "Proving Up," previously published as "The Hox River Window" in Zoetrope: All-Story, seems an explicit nod to the prairie lit of Willa Cather. Both stories focus on the struggles of pioneer children facing dangers beyond their years, but "Proving Up" is more mature, subtle, and frightening than Russell's earlier westward gaze. 

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