You think I’m pushing the envelope? Hardly, at least not compared with Karen Russell, who writes wonderfully weird — or just weird — short stories juxtaposing the everyday with the extraordinary. As such, she’s working in the same genre-bending mode as writers as diverse as Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Manuel Gonzales and George Saunders.
Thre were touches of magical realism in Russell’s glittering first novel, Swamplandia, about the decline of an old-time Everglades gator-themed park. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, it grew out of one the tales in her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves. The eight stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove find her layering the super on the natural with startling results.
In the title tale, the elderly man in the Sorrento grove who looks like an Italian grandfather is really a vampire, who, along with his bat-flying wife, sinks tiny, razor-sharp fangs into “bracingly sour” lemons to slake a more monstrous thirst. Clyde relates his strange history, his courtship of Magreb, their search for a vampire analgesic. But things are changing. Clyde can no longer fly and he knowingly eyes the collarbone of a teenage girl.
In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” eleven former presidents are reincarnated as horses living out their days in a stable with a fenced pasture. It is, possibly, Hell. Although Rutherford, “a skew-ball pinto with a golden cowlick,” debates this with the other presidents, he thinks that if they “could just reach consensus that this is Heaven. . .we could submit to it, the joy of wind and canter and the stubbed ashy sweetness of trough carrots, burnished moons, nosing the secret smells out of grass. I could be free to gallop.”
The president-horse saga is as funny as it is affecting. Rutherford wonders if the turkeys in the barn also “have human biographies hidden beneath their black feathers. The presidents spend a lot of their time talking about where the other citizens of the Union might have ended up. Wilson thinks the suffragettes probably came back as kicky rabbits.”
But Russell also can go dark, as in “Proving Up,” about Nebraska homesteaders trying to make it on the tallgrass prairie during a drought. And sometimes she mixes it up, as in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic,” which I can’t begin to describe. Go, krill!
Her verbal dexterity at manipulating reality, mixing the mundune with the miraculous, fairly dazzles in the haunting, horrific “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls recruited as workers at Nowhere Mill turn into grotesque, furry silkworms spinning thread out of their hands. One girl, though, remembers her humanity even as she instinctually begins to weave the black fiber of a cocoon. And once again, Russell weaves themes of transformation, flight and freedom.
Open Book: I read a digital galley of Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf). Russell, who grew up in Miami, will speak Thursday evening (Feb. 14) at Rollins College as part of Winter with the Writers. More info at http://rollins.edu/winterwiththewriters. Also be sure to catch my former colleague Matt Palm’s Feb. 8 interview with Russell in the Orlando Sentinel, http://tinyurl.com/aq3cjab.
I’m rather weirded out by weirdness at the moment, but I also want to recommend three more new collections I’ve been reading: The Miniature Wife and other Stories by Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead, purchased digital edition), Errantry: Strange Tales by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press, purchased paperback) and Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders (Random House, digital edition, gift). More fantastic fiction.