In Karen Russell’s universe, by the time a story sets itself in motion the worst has already happened. You may be a bloodless vampire who has lost the taste for anything but the tang of lemons. Or you could be a young woman sold into slavery so complete that it literally dehumanizes you. Or perhaps you are the president of the United States who awakens to find himself metamorphosed (among other former presidents) into a farmyard horse. In any case, things certainly seem like they could not get worse, for your very self has been ripped away, leaving you with nothing left to lose.
These ordeals—three among the eight lying in wait for you within Vampires in the Lemon Grove—happen to “you” because Russell’s language is so vivid and sensuous that they become breathtakingly real experiences. This is horror fiction at its playful and unflinching worst . . . and therefore best. No wonder Stephen King expressed his delighted recognition of a worthy young colleague when Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, came out last year.
Just because the worst already appears to be a matter of record, events in each story tend to get suddenly much, much worse, making the former “worst” look stupid by contrast. That’s what happens in the collection’s finest tale, “Proving Up,” which won this year’s National Magazine Award for Fiction. The denouement of this startling fable of pioneer hardship belongs spiritually to Willa Cather’s darkest nightmares, chilling to the last horrific sentence.
The strange predicate offered in the first sentence of this review—the notion that a story “sets itself in motion”—is as precise as I can make it. Russell’s short tales—like the acclaimed Swamplandia!—have the feel of autonomous creatures: The author gives a wicked little push and they’re off and chomping. If the worst has already happened; if, Job-like, you’ve got nothing left to lose, then the whirlwind best is yet to be—as in the last, haunting story of the book, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” where you are a boy who has been dreadfully cruel to another boy and now the time has come for your comeuppance. You can hardly wait.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Russell's (Swamplandia!) collection showcases her strengths as a wordsmith while providing the reader with dazzling, well-imagined settings. Each complex story could easily be expanded into a novel or novella, but Russell cuts right to the heart of the matter, illustrating the conflict with warm, at times whimsical prose. The titular story describes a decades-long relationship between two vampires who travel the world together searching for something to quench their "thirst." These are not your traditional Bram Stoker creatures of the night nor your modern Twilight vampires, but something of Russell's own creation. Similarly, "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" and Dust Bowl-era "Proving Up" are not typical young-boy-coming-of-age stories. Russell's original style can sometimes turn a bit silly, such as in the story told from the point of view of a horse that is the reincarnation of U.S. President Rutherford Hayes, but her aim is true. VERDICT This story collection will be a welcome installment for Russell's fans, and is sure to win her many new ones as well.--Kate Gray, Worcester, MA[Page 98]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
There are only eight stories in Russell's new collection, but as readers of Swamplandia! know, Russell doesn't work small. She's a world builder, and the stranger the better. Not that she writes fantasy, exactly: the worlds she creates live within the one we know--but sometimes they operate by different rules. Take "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979": Nal, its main character, is your basic dejected 14-year-old boy whose brother gets the girls and whose mother has more or less given up; "Nal was a virgin. He kicked at a wet clump of sand until it exploded." But in this beach town, the seagulls have secrets. Or consider "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," a story of high school bullying that extends a familiar plot line in eerie and convincing ways. Similarly, "The New Veterans," in which a middle-aged masseuse works on a young Iraq War vet haunted by his buddy's death, blurs horror, the genre, with the horror of daily life. Is the masseuse losing her mind? Is the vet? What about those ignoring the war entirely? Perhaps the answers lie in the veteran's muddy, whole-back tattoo: "Light hops the fence of its design. So many colors go waterfalling down the man's spine that, at first glance, she can't make any sense of the picture." While this story runs a little long, and the otherwise excellent "Proving Up" doesn't need its final gothic touch, Russell's great gift--along with her antic imagination--who else would give us a barn full of ex-presidents reincarnated as horses?--is her ability to create whole landscapes and lifetimes of strangeness within the confines of a short story. Agent: The Denise Shannon Literary Agency. (Feb.)[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC