While she was writing her award-winning novel Swamplandia! Karen Russell would slip away to “have trysts with monsters.” Those trysts, or the results of them, are collected in her latest book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
Most of the stories in the collection feature monsters or, in Russell’s words, “a monstrous transformation.” Sometimes the monster in the story is not the character you expect.
In Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Clyde is truly a vampire, and so is his wife, Magreb. They currently live in a lemon grove because the ripe, juicy lemons temporarily end the craving for human blood. In his long existence, with Magreb’s help, Clyde has discovered that many sayings about his kind are untrue; he can exist in sunlight, he has a reflection, and he doesn’t need human blood to survive. He still craves it, though. Magreb finds freedom in her condition, but Clyde is trapped by his self-image; “For me mirrors had the opposite effect. I saw a mouth ringed in black blood. I saw the pale son of the villagers’ fears.” It is this image that drives the action Clyde finally takes at the end of the story. I thought the story went on a bit too long past the climax, but Clyde’s voice is wry and affecting.
Reeling for the Empire wouldn’t be out of place in an Ellen Datlow horror anthology, or the New Yorker. This story of young Japanese women who have transformed into giant silkworms can be read as pure horror, as a story of personal transformation, or as a meditation on government, commerce and citizenship. How often have governments sacrificed their citizens for profit or technological advantage? On another level, this could just be a story about the lies men tell women, and that women tell themselves.
The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979, tells us the story of fourteen year old Nal, whose life is imploding the year vast flocks of gulls, more than ever seen before, invade the beach town where he lives. Nal, who is academically gifted and headed for college, feels his future slipping away when his mother is discharged from her job at a nursing home after a random accident. Nal, introverted and embittered, wishes he could be more like his sunny and popular brother Samson. Nal decides that he is being stalked by one of the gulls, and follows it to a huge nest where he finds various articles the seagulls have scavenged. Some of these things – tickets, passports – have future dates on them, as if the seagulls are traveling through time.
I enjoyed the surrealism of this story, especially the time-travel flirtation and the way the gulls, randomly (or perhaps not) are playing havoc with the lives of people. I liked how this fancy contrasted with the concrete, gritty details of Nal’s life –his habit of talking to himself, the crotchety shopkeeper who tells him his blue-dyed Mod haircut makes him look like the Antichrist. “Seagull Army” delineates a turning point, a formative moment, in Nal’s life, even though I’m not sure just what Russell means by Nal’s choices.
Proving Up is a strange, dark horror story, a companion piece in some ways to “Reeling for the Empire.” The tone is eerie, the story a dark, stripped-down fable not unlike Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel Mr Shivers. In the American west in the late 1800s, homesteaders must “prove up” before they are awarded the deeds to the property they’ve been working. Oddly, “proving up” includes having a glass window in your house. In a remote section of drought-ridden Nebraska, a group of families plans to trade a window back and forth so that each of them gets their deed. Miles, the youngest Zenger son, is trusted with carrying the precious window to the nearest neighbors, who are due for an inspection.
Before Miles leaves on his journey, Russell plants more than enough hints about who, or what, the “monster” is. The descriptions of drought-ravaged land are pitch-perfect, and the stories of certain other families, who have not been successful, told in a glancing way by Miles (and the tension between his own parents) build up the suspense. Because the window is glass and fragile, Russell lets the reader assume what the catastrophe will be, but the truth, as it unfolds, is stranger and darker. Russell makes a structural mistake here – her point of view choice requires a jarring shift that the end that actually reduces the power of the story, but line by line, this is a devastating and poetic story that stayed with me.
The Barn at the End of our Term is unabashedly surreal. Eleven US presidents are reincarnated as horses in a stable on a farm. It’s not clear why. There are twenty-two horses in the stable, and eleven of them are always presidents. The story is told from the point of view of Rutherford B Hayes, who spends most of the story trying to figure out how to escape. (Eisenhower, on the other hand, tries to figure out how he can run for President again.) Rutherford has no clue about where the farm exists in time and space. It is like a bardo state, or maybe purgatory (although it’s hard to see its function if it is) and finally, Rutherford does find a way to move on.
Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is mostly for laughs, but it is bittersweet, too. This is another story that could have appeared in any literary magazine, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, equally comfortably. Doug shares the rules for tailgating before the epic annual match-up; Team Krill versus Team Minke Whale. He explains how best to get to the ice caves in Antarctica, what to wear, what to drink, what to tip the Russians. (Rule Ten, Don’t Fall Overboard.)
Doug and his friends are loyal fans of the saddest underdog team ever: “The krill are in a rebuilding year. The krill are always in a rebuilding year. Every year the whole franchise of 60,000,000,000 gets eaten.” And later, “We’ve got a pretty good offense but we’ve got a pretty dismal record on defense.”
Dougbert mentions in passing the defection of his wife, who left him for a billionaire hotel development, and his hatred of the violent fans of Team Whale. From the starting place of tailgaters, particularly those who follow underdog teams, Russell spring-boards into a funny and thought provoking little tale about evolution and faith.
The New Veterans is an exploration of trauma, memory and healing. Beverly is a massage therapist. Under a newly passed law, returning veterans can have massage included as a benefit, and Derek Zeiger is her new client. Derek has a tattoo that covers his whole back; a mural that tells the story of one day, a day when his friend was killed by an IED. As Derek talks about that day, Beverly realizes that the tattoo moves under her fingers; she can change it. She moves a line in the tattoo. On his second visit, Derek tells a slightly different version of events, one in which he reveals a personal sense of guilt for his friend’s death. In the next visit, the story changes again, depending on what Beverly manipulates on the tattoo.
Beverly is a gifted massage therapist who is dealing with her own issues; the post-traumatic stress of her mother’s protracted death from cancer. Beverly was the caregiver; her sister married and moved away. As Beverly continues to work with Derek, and changes the tattoo, his story changes each time, and Beverly grows worried. What if these are delusions, and she is making Derek worse? The story’s climax combines a dramatic phone confrontation with her sister and a final massage for Derek before coming to a resolution. The story ends with Beverly thinking about Derek, but she is really the one who has had a breakthrough.
The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis is a dark, thoughtful take on bullying, loyalty and guilt. Larry Rubio is part of a gang of four kids in New Jersey. One day they find a scarecrow tied to a tree in the park that is their territory. As they inspect it, they notice a scary resemblance to a boy they bullied last year in school. They take down the scarecrow and throw it down a hole. Their plan is to watch it disintegrate. It does, but not in any normal way. Whole sections of the scarecrow begin to disappear; the hands, the feet, finally the head. The other boys assume Larry is doing this. Larry knows more about Eric Mutis than any of the others, so this is a logical conclusion.
Larry, our first person narrator, is wrestling with guilt, not over beating up Eric (which they did a lot) but about a more personal betrayal which is revealed at the end of the story. Larry talks about the beatings and other acts he and his friends do as if they were “guys going to a factory;” this is their role, their job. I thought that made sense, as Russell describes the poverty around them. These are boys with no options, who have blown up their fear and powerlessness into a need for respect and brotherhood – they have a sense of rightness about what they do. They beat up anyone who wears a certain brand of shoe, for instance, because it’s a Nike knock-off. “The H logo was a flamboyant way to announce to your class: Hey, I’m poor!”
Without ever explaining the scarecrow, Russell reveals the truly awful thing that Larry did to Eric; after which, Larry says, “I felt evil and powerful.” This is a good insight; this moment is probably the only time in his life that Larry will ever feel powerful and effective.
If I were an English teacher, I’d love to teach this story alongside Steven King’s “The Body.” I think they have a lot to say to each other. That said, while I admire the story technically, I didn’t care for it particularly. The story is narrated by an older Larry, looking back, and he is stuck in this moment. Again, I think that was well done but I’m not sure I wanted to end this book on that image.
Russell is a gifted story-teller and a gifted writer who is still learning. I recommend these for her insights and her command of the craft.