I wrote about Karen Russell’s Swamplandia here when it came out a few years ago, and just stumbled across her new collection of short stories in the bookstore the other day! Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a new collection (in the vein of her first book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) of eight short stories, each of them as different as the one that came before it, and all of them clear contenders to be anthologized in other publications.
The book starts with the titular “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” a story about a pair of old married vampires who have found a home at a touristy lemon grove in Italy. Clyde and Magreb have been together throughout most of their immortality, which has posed all sorts of new obstacles to marriage. Clyde can no longer transform from man into bat, while Magreb lives in bat-form in a cave in the mountains.
“Reeling for the Empire” is an elaborate tale of a woman named Kitsune who works at a silk factory; however, along with the other women, she is turning into a silkworm herself, spinning out vibrant green thread. After signing herself over to the factory without knowing of the transformation she has agreed to, Kitsune learns that there is a metamorphosis in her future if only she will allow herself to take it.
Many of Russell’s stories are written about teen characters, with the transition between childhood and adulthood in mind. Two of these, “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” were my favorite in the collection, and two that I will continue to return to. “Proving Up” is an American Gothic story set in the frontier farms of the west, where a family must prove that they have acquired a glass window for their farmhouse in order to get ownership papers. It is a haunting piece of history, built on chilling images from frontier living. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is narrated by a boy in grade eight. It records the events that follow him and his friends after they find a scarecrow that resembles a disappeared classmate of theirs named Eric Mutis. As the story goes on, the narrator reveals the connection between himself and Eric Mutis, pulling apart a terrifying world of middle school bullying.
Every story in this collection is so worth the read (I haven’t even mentioned “The New Veterans,” a story about horses living together on a farm, each one the reincarnation of an American president), as they show off Russell’s skill of reworking language and story into something completely new.