Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Posted on: June 29, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Previously published in The Herald magazine.

Karen Russell’s first collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves was lauded widely, but it was her Pulitzer nominated first novel Swamplandia! that fixed her place in contemporary writing. Now, with her strong follow up collection of stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell makes it evident that she remains a force to be reckoned with. 

Most evident in Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s ability (and perhaps more importantly, her choice) to completely ignore the standard controls of mainstream literary fiction. While a great many literary writers are turning frequently to speculative or science fiction tropes, they still do so with great restraint. Russell, however, writes with complete abandon and aplomb. Critics from NPR and the New York Times may call this ‘creativity’ and talk about Russell’s ability to manipulate the limits of mainstream fiction, but that is all just semantics. Vampires in the Lemon Grove proves that Russell openly embraces whatever method, whichever myth she needs to tell her strange, powerful and often disturbing story. 

The strongest and most memorable of these stories is Reeling for the Empire, set in an alternate Meiji-era Japan where the silk economy flourishes on silk produced by young women who are turned into ‘some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female’. These ‘reelers’ are a ‘secret, a furred and fleshy silk factory’, who ‘were sisters already, spinning identical dreams in beds thousands of miles apart, fantasizing about gold silks and an ‘imperial vocation’.’ Russell names her protagonist Kitsune, also the name of a nine-tailed Japanese fox-spirit known to be a trickster and a seducer. At first, Kitsune and the other ‘reelers’ are forced to produce silk every single day, unable to anything else: ‘ceaselessly, even while we dream, we are generating thread Every droplet of our energy, every moment of our time flows into the silk’. But as she spins silk from her body, Kitsune begins to spin stories from her mind - she spins her memories out, changing he story, tricking the Agent who trapped the reelers into a fate far worse than her own which remains open with potential, the ‘stench of a bad and thickening future’ no longer present. 

Russell’s stories are often about memory. In The New Veterans, Beverly is a masseuse who seems to be able to manipulate memory by massage. As she treats a young veteran from the Iraq war, manipulating his muscle memory, she is also able to somehow influence his actual memories, though she can not quite believe what she seems to be doing, because ‘memories are inoperable. They are fixed inside a person, they can’t be smoothed or soothed with fingers’. And yet, Beverly is able to removes scars from the young soldiers’ mind, memory and soul by smoothing away ‘a shiny ridge of skin, as slender as a lizard’s tail’. 

Besides Russell’s more serious comments on remaining captive to your past, there are a great many moments of hilarity in this collection, albeit much of this is gallows humour. The title story features two ancient vampires who have realised that so much about them is just myth - they can function just as humans do, and kill any desire to feed with a bite into a succulent Italian lemon. But what’s a vampire to do, once each myth around him has been stripped and reduced to pure fiction? ‘You small mortals don’t realise the power of your stories,’ thinks a much diminished Clyde. In a strange, hilarious story called The Barn at the End of Our Term, Russell imagines multiple dead American presidents to be living in a strange limbo as horses in a barn. They’d all like to head back and re-claim their places, but they just can’t seem to clear the fence. In utter desperation and sadness, President Hayes begins to believe his beloved wife has been reincarnated as a sheep and one ‘that might be his wife follows him into the Barn, blinking her long lashes like a deranged starlet’. It is clear that Russell’s storytelling skills are strong, her humour and wit tack-sharp and entirely irreverent in these peculiar, intelligent and entertaining stories.