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Karen Russell
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-95723-8
Publication Date: 02-12-2013
246 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 03-08-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Horror  Fantasy  Mystery  General Fiction

Worlds collide on a daily basis; in every moment, actually. Our inner life butts up against rude reality in a manner that disconcerts us before we stagger forward, another stumbling step into the unknown. The bubble beings that surround us don't just come from another universe. Each of them is another universe, a complete cosmology that began with a Big Bang and is well on its way to an inevitable Heat Death, the triumph of entropy. Should we hope to understand them, we can't hang around to grok an infinitely long tale of woe and wonder. We need those worlds condensed into words that can make their way into our world.

The short story gives us the glimpse we desire, the executive summary of something we might otherwise never make its way over our personal event horizons. With her new collection of short stories, 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove,' Karen Russell produces for the reader eight precisely rendered worlds. None of them are expected, all of them are on the right side of weird, and every one is so vivid as to seem more like a memory than an invention. These are miniature worlds with mirrors as a backdrop, where readers will see themselves in an infinite regression, emotions shattered and made real.

The eight tales here offer a particularly wide variety of settings, formats and storytelling styles. "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" is a relatively straightforward look at the classic monster, imagined by the author as being very different from the legends. The down-to-earth style, low-key humor and plain-spoken characters contrast nicely with ethereal lives and endless addiction. In "Reeling for the Empire," we see both characters and a country making a horrific transformation. The ease with which all this transpires makes the story all the more disturbing.

Russell offers what looks like the world most of us live in, subtly shifted in "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979" and "Proving Up." In the former, we slide slowly into something else, while the latter employs a child's perspective to upturn the normal into the chillingly strange. "The Barn at the End of Our Term" employs thoroughly enjoyable absurdity taken with a straight face so as to let the author finish on an elegiac note. "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" is fine fun with the list format.

"The New Veterans" is the longest and most intense work here, a carefully written tale of emotional transference and the power of stories to rise from within. "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutts" uses the classic horror trope of an evil doll (in this case, a scarecrow) to excavate the emotional costs of bullying; it's a fine, upsetting story.

Ruling the roost in all of these stories is Russell's prose. Most of the stories leaven the intensely externalized emotions with well-placed nuggets of humor evoked by the horror. There are lots of sentences that will make you laugh even as the overall effect of the stories that contain them is deeply disturbing. Russell knows how to write a beautiful page as well, drawing us in with dense descriptions that open up into dialogue and action. It is a constant pleasure to read this book.

For a book that is in retrospect, replete with both horror and humor, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" manages to sidestep any limitations we might think to place on the reading experience. In terms of tone and subject, Russell is all over the map, but it is one map, clearly her own, and just as clearly, a route to the terra incognita of those worlds that brush by us but are not us. We look in the mirror, then outside of ourselves at those around us and see something different, never realizing that what gazes back at us from the mirror finds us to be disturbingly alien.

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