In her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Swamplandia!, Karen Russell created a startling world of phantasmagorical lusciousness in a Florida alligator theme park. As she had in her first book — a highly regarded story collection memorably called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves — the Miami native mixed magical reality and the supernatural with a sharp, contemporary wit and a side of delicious creepiness. It was a blend that felt wholly her own.
She’s done it again in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, eight stories that insinuate themselves into your brain with their slightly off or downright apocalyptic viewpoints. She writes with a vivid sureness that stamps her name on every sentence. And at 31, she’s probably not even at the peak of her powers.
Any follow-up to Swamplandia! was bound to be tough, but rather than plunging into another full-length novel, Russell smartly followed the formula that worked for her before, pulling together a dizzying group of stories that elbow each other to be leader of the pack. The collection serves her well; her imagination is once again on full, Technicolor, mind-bending display.
And if it’s a bit uneven at times, the collection still feels effortless, generated by a restless, demonically clever imagination. If this is a sampling of what goes on in Russell’s head, it must be pretty interesting in there.
There are some standouts. The title story, about a vampire marriage on the rocks after a mere 100 years because the husband is now afraid of flying, will make fans of Russell’s writing smile with recognition. The scenes of a grounded vampire trying to slake his thirst with cast-off lemons in an old Italian grove are simultaneously poignant and ominous.
In Reeling for the Empire, set sometime vaguely in the future, Japanese women are sold by their families into servitude by a fast-talking Recruitment Agent in a slowly unveiled horror story. Held in a secret brick building called the Nowhere Mill, the women, tricked into swallowing a magical potion, become part human, part caterpillar, spinning rainbow-colored silken threads for the national good — until they figure out a way to turn the tables on their captor.
Not every story is set in a fantastical reality. One that strikes closer to home, The New Veterans, focuses on an emotionally fragile massage therapist who, through a new government program, begins to give a series of massages to an even more damaged Iraqi war veteran. Consumed with guilt for failing to spot a trip wire for a bomb that killed a member of his platoon, the vet has tattooed that fateful day’s explosion on his back in brilliant color as a memorial. The therapist learns that she can manipulate his memories, even erase them, through massage. But then she begin to experience war flashbacks for events she didn’t witness.
Russell’s inventiveness is evident throughout the stories. One of her gifts is a sure-footed ability to take modern prosaic language and apply it to extreme situations, such as her exploration of “Antarctic tailgating,” where she instructs readers how to get ready for the big game. (First, take eight months off from work. Notarize your will. Pack on a beer gut that can make the difference between life and death. Kill your plants and release your cat. As she says, “Antarctic tailgaters know exactly how hard it is to party.”)
And in The Barn at the End of Our Term, Russell plays with the idea of reincarnation of former presidents. In this case, the presidents come back as horses. Rutherford B. Hayes is a pinto with “a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare.” Andrew Jackson is a stocky black quarterhorse, while John Adams is a thoroughbred with four white socks. They elect themselves to various barnyard posts: Spokeshorse of the Western Territories, Governor of the Cow Pastures, Commanding General of the Standing Chickens. Once a politician, always a politician, apparently.
In Russell’s stories, the bizarre becomes normal, even commonplace, creating a tension that drives each piece. It’s a killer combination — this whopper of an imagination coupled with an instinct for the guts of a story. If Vampires in the Lemon Grove is an indicator of the future, Russell’s stories will be seizing our imaginations — and nibbling at the edges of our nightmares — for years to come.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.