Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell | Book review
Russell’s story collection is imbued with horror and humor.
Following her Pulitzer Prize–nominated novel, Swamplandia, Karen Russell returns with a dazzlingly strange collection of stories. Vacillating between horror and humor, her writing recalls both George Saunders and vintage Stephen King, sometimes simultaneously. The unifying factor is Russell’s blend of the real and supernatural, mundane and extraordinary—her magical realism is at times unsettling, but often darkly funny, too.
The title story, about a vampire couple who discover their bloodlust is sated by biting lemons, is actually among the more “normal” in the book. Despite being undead, Clyde and Magreb encounter problems all too human: growing apart and constantly bickering (from spending eternity with each other). Russell isn’t afraid to be wacky. In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” dead Presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses. Purebred gelding James Buchanan believes their shared stable to be heaven; Warren G. Harding, a “flatulent roan pony who can’t digest grass,” thinks it’s hell; and Rutherford B. Hayes is only interested in finding his wife, whose soul may be inhabiting a sheep on the farm. Metamorphosis plays a key role in several of the stories, as in “Reeling for the Empire,” when Japanese girls enslaved in a factory transform into silkworms.
As skilled as she is at creating sumptuous worlds, Russell doesn’t always know how to gracefully exit. While ending on an unresolved note sometimes works, it happens so often here that one begins to question whether it’s a stylistic choice. Still, the sheer imagination on display in this collection makes it one of the more memorable reads of the year thus far.