In Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her third book and second collection of short stories, Karen Russell does not deviate very far from those characters and themes familiar to readers of her previous work, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) and Swamplandia! (2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). For some, this will be a disappointment. For some, a delight. Here, as before, we have forlorn youth, confused desires, and misplaced monsters. Japanese girls stolen away from their homes and transformed, slowly, into giant silkworms that reel thread for their empire. A boy in Strong Beach plagued by the coincidence of his transforming adolescent form and an invasion of seagulls. An old vampire who does not know, anymore, what sort of man or monster he is. Some of the stories in this collection push further into absurdism. "The Barn at the End of Our Term" concerns the reincarnation of certain U.S. presidents as horses. In "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating," we are treated to a very bizarre, very hopeless band of Team Krill supporters who venture down to the South Pole to cheer on their boys against Team Whale. At first read, I found this story less densely weird and revealing than some of Russell's stories in St. Lucy's, but, upon further reflection, it occurred to me that this absurdist exercise in futility—this pep rally against evolution and nature—works as a compass, of sorts, to the conflict at the heart of most of Russell's stories: the struggle with what seems at once natural and monstrous.
In the collection's title story, Russell describes a life-weary vampire living in a Sorrento lemon grove with language as sour and sharp as the monster's pickled old soul. It's modern times and the vampire has lived long and, for much of the time, not so well. He has spent most of his life in the dark, literally and figuratively: sleeping in coffins, drinking blood, aping the manner and style of those vampire tales the villagers told back during the Enlightenment. Not until he meets Magreb, his future wife, and she asks at what point he figured out "the blood did nothing" (p. 10), does the vampire begin to question the false narrative that he has been feasting on. One Halloween, after his relationship with Magreb has opened his eyes to the fictions contained in those narratives that purported to describe, in lurid and false detail, his particular brand of monstrousness, he is faced with children dressed as vampire hunters, bedecked with necklaces of garlic: "I blinked down at a little blond child and then saw that my two hands were shaking violently, soundlessly, like old friends wishing not to burden me with their troubles. I dropped the candies into the children's bags, thinking: You small mortals don't realize the power of your stories" (p. 13).
Russell's descriptions of Sorrento, of the grove, of the cliffs that tower nearby, are marked with a natural beauty coupled with sadness and an undercurrent of vertiginous terror. Of the tourist attraction known as the "I Pipistrelli Impazziti—the descent of the bats" she writes of how:
They flow from cliffs that glow like pale chalk, expelled from caves in the seeming billions. Their drop is steep and vertical, like black hail. Sometimes a change in the weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea. It's three hundred feet to the lemon grove, six hundred feet to the churning foam of the Tyrrhenian. At the precipice, they soar upward and crash around the green tops of the trees. (p. 5)
In this story, as with others in this collection, Russell crafts a fully realized world—here a fascinating diorama of lemon stands, tourists, soaring cliffs, crashing waves, endless sun-washed games of dominoes—a world with a past, present, and future through which she interrogates those narratives on which we, and her characters, base our ideas of identity and monstrousness. The vampire in this story becomes not just a vampire but a man made recognizable in his habits, in his loves and fears, in his delight in the sour-fizz of lemons, in his world that is our own. The vampire is no longer an other. By story's end, when the vampire falls into the image of his monstrosity as drawn by others, we are left wondering—as Russell wanted, and perhaps did herself—at the power of stories to twist one's sense of self so deeply that a vampire, even upon gazing in the mirror and seeing his own reflection, might not see the lie others had told but, instead, some warped reflection of his own truth, "a mouth ringed in black blood . . . the pale son of the villagers' fears" (p. 10).
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves included much in the way of characters lost in their world: lost at sea, lost in giant conch shells, lost in homes for girls raised by wolves. Throughout this new collection, Russell's characters are lost in the image of their selves, particularly as reflected through the eyes of others. In some stories, this question may revolve around, more or less, human characters. In "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," one character struggles with his role in the bullying of another child—with being branded "mean." In "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979," a boy struggles with not only his own burgeoning desires and hatreds, but with the way people see his head as "lumpy," his punches as ill-timed, his presence as, more or less, icky, unneeded, or worse, unnoticed.
In other stories, these questions beat at the hearts of monsters. In "Reeling for the Empire"—perhaps one of Russell’s best explorations yet of how the borders of monstrosity define our identities—a young, Japanese girl named Kitsune travels far from her home, at the subtle push of a factory recruitment agent, in pursuit of "future dowries . . . freedom from debt . . . tales of women working in the grand textile mills, where steel machines from Europe gleamed in the light of the Meiji sunrise" (p. 25). Once at the factory, recruits discover that the tea ceremony shared with the agent, in celebration of a girl's joining the fold, has begun remaking their insides. "Soon your stomachs will bloat," Kitsune says to new recruits to the factory. "You will manufacture silk in your gut with the same helpless skill that you digest food, exhale. The kaiko-change" (p. 29). Kitsune, at first, is helpless to resist this change, lost in her own guilt at having been coerced by the agent, and her darker, truer guilt, at not really having been coerced at all. Many girls bear the mark of their innocence, she says—"scar tissue, a brave spot" (p. 37), but Kitsune has none, as she did not fight the agent, but signed the contract of her own free will. Why? the other girls ask. "I was thirsty," Kitsune answers (pp. 37-8).
At other times, as in "Reeling for the Empire," it feels that Russell continues to tap deeper and deeper into her own particular brand of heartfelt monstrosity. Each of Russell's characters is, in the end, a hero or a monster of one sort or another. All of them are sewn up in their own narratives of fear, of doubt, of hope. What seems clearest to me from reading Russell's work, and this new collection in particular, is her belief that what differentiates a monster from a hero is their ability to take what haunts them—whether pain, fear, doubt, or their own desires—and face it head on, use it to transform themselves into something that is, if not better, then, at the very least, truer. The vampire in the lemon grove falls at the end of his story not because he is a monster, but because he cannot face the truth of his own innocence—his own choice in the matter—and, thus, his true evil. What allows Kitsune in "Reeling for the Empire" to not only avoid falling, but to, perhaps, achieve that grandest of all superpowers, flight, is that she discovers the transformative power of her shame and regret. She focuses on the memory of her signing her own contract and uses the darkness of her emotions to unfurl a new future for herself, one in which she leads the young women of her factory into revolution, and into their own cocoons of shame and regret, from which, at some point in their future, they will emerge from their past as something new, as themselves, living and flying free.
Chris Kammerud is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. Presently, he's revising a novel concerning love, revolution, and virtual K-Pop idols. Past work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Ho Chi Minh City. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.