The virtues of Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! have already been extolled in this column, and I am happy to report that her new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is tailor-made for fans of both magical realism and horror. Employing intensely awkward humor (think The Office) and melding it with dark sensibilities (think Poe), she’s written a book that belongs on your shelf next to Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Bas-Lag-era China Mieville. Russell’s subjects have grown up a bit—there are teenagers, but there are also dead presidents, ancient vampires, a middle-aged divorcé. And while Swamplandia! had plenty of darkness, the creepy factor has been dialed up here to the point where you might consider not reading certain stories after dusk.
Take “Proving Up,” which is probably the most straight-up horror of all the stories. The homesteaders of the Hox River Settlement must battle not only drought, isolation, and the difficulties of farming in frontier-era Nebraska, but government bureaucracy as well. In order to “prove up” and ratify their claim, they need a real glass window in their house—and they’ve only got one between the three families. So when the Inspector comes to town, the Zegners send out their youngest son, their best rider, to bring the window around. But something wicked this way comes, crossing the prairie and headed for Miles Zegner, and it wants that window too.
And then there is “Reeling for the Empire,” my favorite of the collection. Who needs fussy, fragile silkworms when you can alter women to generate and spin the silk for you, at greater volumes and greater speeds? Japanese women sign up for a job working in a silk factory and find themselves not only processing their product, but creating it as well. Entrapment and metamorphosis lethally mix to create a time-bomb that we only just glimpse the power of. I do love it when monsters turns on their master, and you can’t help but despair along with, and then cheer for, Kitsune and her newly-mothy cohorts.
“The New Veterans” would be equally at home on The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, with its surreal plotline and disoriented characters. Beverly, a massage therapist working on a young veteran, unwittingly changes a tattoo commemorating a deceased comrade which in turn changes his memories of the war. And now she’s got some of Sgt. Derek Zeiger’s memories as well, memories that keep her up at night and may just drive her mad. But in the meantime, Zeiger seems better than ever, free of not only his lower back problems but his PTSD. Which is more important, the truth or healing? And if she does manage to heal him, will she lose herself in the process?
Also packing quite a punch are “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” and “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” which feel the most reminiscent of her previous work. Trading on the horrors inherent in adolescence, these stories follow young narrators as they struggle (and mostly fail) to make sense of their worlds. Balancing out these shadow-ridden pieces are the funnier stories: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” “The Barn At the End of Our Term,” and “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.” In “Vampires” we meet two vampires (surprise!) who have learned to suck lemons instead of blood, and examine how that’s working out for them. Short version: not as well as they’d hoped. It’s the perfect lead story, reflecting the range of tone in the collection: offhand and funny to start, and then growing progressively bleaker.
“The Barn” and “Dougbert Shackleton” would both be straight-up hilarious in their absurdity if it weren’t for the undertone of melancholy rounding them out. In the first, deceased presidents find themselves not in Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, or wherever, but reincarnated as horses on a farmer’s barn. They pass the time trying to escape—and get re-elected, of course. Dougbert Shackleton is an Antarctic tailgater rooting for Team Krill, and he has some advice for you on everything from what to pack, which nationalities make the best shipmates, and how to effectively route for krill, to what to do if your wife leaves you for a Team Whale devotee. Pro-tip: there are no hot pretzels below the ice!
Russell is clearly a fan of horror, and has a knack for finding the scary in the screwball. If, like me, you’re haunted by Bradbury’s calliopes, King’s snowbound resorts and dark woods, Poe’s cheerful murderers, and Mieville’s inter-dimensional insects, but also like a dash of humor with your terror, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a must-read.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is out on February 12 from Knopf Doubleday.
Jenn Northington has been a bookseller since 2005, and is currently the events manager at WORD in Brooklyn. She also writes for Book Riot, is a founding member of the Bookrageous podcast, and and has never won a free ham.