What if deceased presidents were reincarnated as horses in a belated lesson in humility? This is one of the least disturbing premises in Karen Russell's new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
Russell, best known for her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, returns here with a series of stories about people across the world and across eras bumping up against the supernatural. Rarely does this work out to their advantage. A sense of creeping dread fills many of the stories, and one or two pass into outright horror. If you are the squeamish type, you should nonetheless try to give in and relish the creativity of the plights Russell throws her characters into. One of the most unnerving entries features young women who have been transformed into moth/girl hybrids forced to spin silk for a nameless evil factory manager. While much of the story focuses on the girls' dawning horror regarding their predicament, the ending is not interested in cheap thrills, but rather in the notion of embracing one's inner monster.
Russell certainly has the ability to spook and shock, but the greater terror of her stories lies in the implacability of her villains, and the sense that many of her protagonists have brought these misfortunes upon themselves. There's a spectrum, of course. The National Magazine Award winner, "Proving Up" (previously published as "The Hox River Window"), reaches a fever pitch of scariness, with little hope for its child narrator, but there's also the slightly out-of-place, though still welcome, satire of sports rivalries, "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating." Set in, yes, Antarctica, it's funny and ridiculous, and features some awfully nonchalant mentions of murder.
In less capable hands, these stories might be too strange, but Russell has a firm hand on her monsters and scenarios and a vivid sense of language. Her narrators may be a bit unusual looking, but they're also painfully human.
VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE :: By Karen Russell :: Alfred A. Knopf :: 256 pages :: $24.95
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