vampires in the lemon groveEight Twilight-Zone Like Short Stories with a Literary Twist

Author: Karen Russell

Blending the odd, the outlandish, and the absurd with a literary quality and a tongue-and-cheek bow to the bizzaro sub-genre, the write up on Vampires in the Lemon Grove was more than enough to make me giddy with excitement. Always seeking some new thing, I’m a sucker for horror concepts transformed and I’m even more compelled by an author’s bravery to go beyond the prejudices of genre and topic to create aura and perception pieces. Sorted into eight long short stories (some of them novella length), this collection served as my first introduction to the acclaimed Karen Russell. Before I had even finished wading my way through the intense long-short stories, I realized I had discovered a new favorite author and loaded up my online shopping cart with her other works accordingly (including Swamplandia!)

Russell provides readers with a different type of short story. This isn’t a collection to take to the beach or to slowly wade through, picking up and coming back again in the middle of stories at will. Instead, these particular stories remind me of the highly literary items that would crop up from time to time in my college and grad school years – the type of story a group of egg-head English majors would read, discuss, analyze, digest, and mull over for weeks only to arrive back at the beginning with a knowledge of the author’s genius and a complete inability to understand what the point (if there was one) in each story was and how the careful craft set that moral loose on the audience. Despite having degrees in English (including a Masters), I usually hate this type of story. I don’t like to fight my fiction for meaning and sometimes I feel that the overzealous cleverness of experimental authors detracts not only from the joy of reading but from the creation of meaning. So, basically, I should have hated Vampires. What surprised me then was how I loved the inexplicable, brave weirdness in each tale, that hazy sense of confusion I had at the end of most stories, and the tangible feeling that I had briefly grasped  a deeper, fuller meaning.

Part of the appeal is the fact that Russell doesn’t feel like a conceited author aware (and proud) of her ability to confuse and confound you with wit and literary panache. Instead, each story reads with an eclectic weirdness and an aura of boundless possibility. I admit, I didn’t understand every story, at least not with the same interpretations that other readers had, but this didn’t bother me. The beauty, the addiction, was living in this uncanny, lyrical world where presidents could suddenly become horses, vampires succumb to the lure of pointless badness in order to escape “forever” marriages, young girls become silk worms controlled by materialistic governments, and the wild west gains a far darker importance when greed and materialism clash with cannibalism. A great deal of the magic is in the dynamic writing, but the bizarre situations themselves and the various interpretations you can append to stories that don’t 100% register make this a unique reading experience with the gut-punching ability to make you simultaneously thoughtful and vulnerable.

My favorite story within this collection was “Reeling for the Empire.” A young Japanese woman chooses her own fate – and it is a terrible one. Having sold herself to spin silk, she is gradually transformed into a half-human, half-silk worm creature, spinning for the realm. However, the day in and day out life, being used up by the system, and the care-worn creatures around her (none of whom chose their fate) leads to a drastic change in thought, shifting duty into revenge while embracing the freedom of otherness. Society’s outcasts, burdened with all the work, discover their own talents oddly enough granted them by their subjugation. This is when the story shifts and emerges, like a moth from its chrysalis, into a brave and yet ominous new dawn.

“The Barn at the End of Our Term” is a story of politics and power versus what actually matters in life. Reincarnated as horses in a purgatory like barn, former presidents of the United States try to maintain both their power and their authority in a world where they are merely dumb animals. Strange and sad, the story is nonetheless empowering for its final message and hilarious for its dark humor. The ultimate meaningless nature of meetings and power maneuvers in the grand scheme of things, compared with the temporality of politics and popularity is an essential message for this fraught election time and, even more important, a story so strange that its created world feels powerfully, eerily true.

In “The New Veterans” Russel explores grief when an Iraqi veteran’s vivid back tattoo of his friend’s horrible death is manipulated by a masseuse, showing how we grieve and how perceptions change everything and the lies and self-delusions we foster are such beautiful, tragic, harmful coping mechanisms. The vividness of this fluid tattoo and its representation of a momento mori reflecting the griever’s stages of experience combines with the aspect of war and bloodshed in the Middle East to create an Outer Limits like feel which is both creepy and oddly soothing.

In a more lighthearted can’t we all just make fun of ourselves vibe, Russell throws a jab at sports-fanatics and self-righteous hopeless cause advocates everywhere in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.” Split between the wealthy winners of Team Whale and the down-and-out, resort to eating your mate Team Krill fanatics the story is pure sarcastic black humor with absurdism thrown in for good measure. Not as enlightening or thoughtful as some of the other offerings, it’s nevertheless fun and a refreshing break from restless vampires to whom “till death do you part” is more of a burden than you would expect

“Proving Up” is one of the most acclaimed inclusions in this particular offering, yet its starry eyed, Twilight Zone weirdness was a little too elusive even for me. Comparing greed, land lust, and manifest destiny, the edgy story has that eerie factor coupled with the secretive there’s-something-behind-everything paranoia. However, the onrush of events and the vagueness, which didn’t seem to stymie most readers, left me wondering what had happened and what the tale meant, beyond of course the obvious destructive nature of feeling the need to “own” that which is not yours and can never be owned. While trolling around on NPR, Book Riot, and other sites where Vampires in the Lemon Grove is reviewed, dissected, hated, and loved, I found one reviewer praising how this is an exceptional zombie story. Huh? There were zombies? Where? Where? I. . . I just admit that I didn’t get this one at all and I didn’t even enjoy the mystery of not fully getting it.

A quirky, multi-genre, literary feat with the backbone of a Twilight Zone episode and the twisted imagination of a permanent dreamer, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a mostly solid collection of mind-bending tales. Sure to amuse and disturb at turns, this sardonic little collection is positioned somewhere between a psychedelic drug trip and a master of literature. It’s an acquired you’ll love it or you’ll be frustrated with it taste, only for connoisseurs of everything inexplicable and wordlessly meaningful.

–        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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