Karen Russell’s vampires have bite

In her second story collection, Russell demonstrates her gifts for genre-bending and whimsical, exuberant prose

Topics: LA Review of Books, karen russell, Books, essays, short stories,

Karen Russell's vampires have bite
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

HERE’S THE LAMEST review equation in the world: Musician X + Filmmaker Y =Writer Z. So, forgive me this transgression (I just can’t help myself): Karen Russell is like some weird, perfect blend of singer-songwriter Neko Case and Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki. Dreamy and gleeful and muscular, Russell, like these other artists, succeeds on her own terms: she’s a swaggering world-builder, a center-tent carnival barker, a wild-eyed curator of all things fantastic. Her half-mad tales give breath to an exuberant chorus of confused souls. And she’s not tied down to any genre. She summons influences as diverse as H.P. Lovecraft and Joy Williams, Shirley Jackson and Michael Chabon, Italo Calvino and Carson McCullers, Mark Richard and Ray Bradbury, and weaves it all — as only a young marvel can — into something wholly new, something majestic and real.
Los  Angeles Review of BooksVampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s third book, following debut story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and debut novel Swamplandia!, both widely recognized as stunning inventions. It features eight stories, each shot through with dizzying language, in which we’re introduced to lemon-munching vampires, silkworm-girls, seagull armies, apocalyptic pioneers, ex-presidents reincarnated as horses, the perilous practice of Antarctic tailgating, a massage therapist who inherits the memories of a tortured young veteran, and a scarecrow that haunts a posse of young bullies. Russell’s characters — always somewhere between tender and vicious — are lovingly, carefully rendered. Full of magic and myth, they’re our guides through the strangest and darkest stretches of Russell’s heaven-bright imagination. And they’re funny. Man, are they funny. They whimper and whelp and wail and beg to be danced with.



The title story concerns two vampires who, coming to understand that none of what’s believed to be true about vampires is actually true, have sought out relief all across the globe in everything from mint tea to jackal’s milk to Cherry Coke floats. They’ve discovered their oasis in Sorrento, Italy, at a dead nun’s lemonade stand: sinking their teeth into perfect Italian lemons relieves their thirst! Masquerading now as a typical nonno, narrator Clyde survived for years on human blood before meeting Magreb, who taught him the truth about their kind. Sunlight was fine. Garlic didn’t hurt them in the least. No need to sleep in a coffin. Human blood was not a necessity. At first, Clyde felt beautifully free, but now — older, unable to metamorphose into a bat like Magreb and having settled into a boring routine with her — he feels neutered, lost. In Russell’s hands, it all translates into a deeply human meditation on addiction and commitment.

“Reeling for the Empire” deals with a group of girls who have been given a tea that’s transformed them into silk-producers, a hybrid human/silkworm. They’re factory workers, overseen by an Agent who is willing to off them if they stop producing. The narrator, Kitsune, begins to understand the extent of their powers and knows they must reclaim their futures. When the Agent comes for them in the end, he sees white-faced girls with “sunken noses that look partially erased.” Having almost fully evolved, their eyes are “insect-huge” and their “[spines] and elbows are incubating lace for wings.” Kitsune launches herself at the Agent and gets “a thrilling sensation of what true flight will feel like, once we complete our transformation.” The story, like so much of Russell’s work, feels itself like a form of flying.

In “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” 14-year-old Nal is overwhelmed by the presence of an army of seagulls while trying to navigate the rocky terrain of being a kid with a charming older brother and a mother who has given up on life. When he discovers that the seagulls are hoarding talismanic objects from the townspeople in their nest, “pecking at squares of paper and erasing whole futures,” he’s shaken into a new awakening. Framed against a seagull invasion, Nal’s story is so much different (and better) than the coming-of-age slop you’re used to.

The collection slows down in the middle. “Proving Up,” about a family questing for land in an apocalyptic American West, features Russell’s trademark beautiful writing, but it’s a snoozer compared to the other thrilling stories here. And “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which ex-presidents reincarnated as horses dally around some maybe-heaven, feels like a one-note joke that drags on for too long.

“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is breezy fun, though. Full of gutbuster lists and driven by a genuinely hilarious voice, it feels as if it could be plucked straight from Jon Stewart’s Naked Pictures of Famous People or Jack Pendarvis’s classic The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. The narrator informs us that “a beer gut has made the difference between life and death at the blue bottom of the world.” Beginning a list of Antarctic tailgating necessities, he reminds readers to “make friends with your death”; otherwise, he jests, just “[cheer] for the Antarctic minke whales, like every other asshole.” “Apocalypse food,” he also tells us, “is appropriate for the Antarctic tailgate, the sort of stuff you’d find in a Cold War bunker: jerky, canned tuna, powdered milk, soups in envelopes.”

The strongest story here is “The New Veterans.” Beverly, a massage therapist, believes that bodies have “a secret language candled inside [them], something inexpressibly bright that can be transmitted truly only via touch,” and she’s challenged by a recent bill that’s been passed: Direct Access for US Veterans to Massage Therapist Services. Her first referral is Sgt. Derek Zeiger, who has a detailed tattoo of an Iraqi landscape on his back — soldiers, birds, cattle, blue sky, sun, palm trees, the Diyala River, the village of Fedaliyah, a telephone pole, and a red star. It’s a painting of his best friend’s death day. Russell makes it all feel like a particularly beautiful episode of The Twilight Zone, and she builds incredible tension as Beverly begins to literally rub out Zeiger’s worst war memories, taking them on as her own. It’s a haunting story, told in whispers and touches. Maybe it’s Beverly’s hands you can feel. Maybe it’s Zeiger’s horrible pain. Or maybe it’s just Russell, expert puppeteer, pulling you, making you bend and twist with “sad dog” Beverly and her new vet.

Closer “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” recalls vintage-era Stephen King. After finding a mutilated half-scarecrow half-doll that looks like Eric Mutis (nicknamed Eric Mutant), a missing classmate they used to bully, the boys of Camp Dark — Larry, Mondo, J.C., and Gus — are strangled by guilt and seek to be redeemed. In a flashback, they’re caught beating up Eric behind the school by the librarian, and narrator Larry Rubio tells us: “I think we needed that librarian to follow us around the hallways for every minute of every school day, reading us her story of our lives, her fine script of who we were and our activities — but of course she couldn’t do this, and we did get lost.” And lost is what they are and will remain, forever haunted by wormy-lipped Eric Mutant.

The stories are linked by a deep concern for time. In “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” Clyde says: “I once pictured time as a black magnifying glass and myself as a microscopic flightless insect trapped in that circle of night. But then Magreb came along, and eternity ceased to frighten me.” Led by Kitsune, the silkworm-girls in “Reeling for the Empire” wait for the perfect moment to attack instead of submissively succumbing to the wills of their less powerful master. “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” considers how the thieving seagulls “[warp] people’s futures into some new and terrible shapes.” The narrator of “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” stresses the importance of devoting several months of tailgating to an event that lasts 20 seconds, the defeat of Team Krill by Team Whale. In “The New Veterans,” Beverly marvels that “[the] same spine that has been inside her since babyhood is hers today, the exact same bones from the womb, a thought that always fills her with a kind of thrilling claustrophobia.” And the collection ends with Larry Rubio standing down in a hole with a picked-apart scarecrow and a mall-bought rabbit. He says (from where? the present?): “Somewhere I think I must be still be standing, just like that.”

Never heavy-handed, the stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are imbued with notions of grace and redemption. “There is a loneliness,” vampire Clyde tells us, “that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species.” The monsters here practice the frail magic of living with a wobbly vivacity, and Russell’s greatest gift is how she awakens them in our minds. While the stories aren’t religious, they overtake you like some mystical tidal wave. Russell’s prose is touched always with pain and wonder, her characters have an uncanny ability to access what Robert Walser called “the true truths,” and her plots are giddy and snap-wicked. On top of that, she’s hell-bent on raucousness. She’s a welder of broken hearts. She’s not afraid to make the page tremble.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>