Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell

I heard Karen Russell read from part of the story “Reeling for the Empire” at a Fiction Addiction reading last year, and I didn’t feel too inclined to read the whole story afterward. But I found my way to this collection regardless of that insufficiency of interest and will admit that I appreciated that story more hearing it in my own head. Russell is at her best for me when she’s creepy and sinister, and I get a bit less intrigued when her quirky humor is dominating. Though I have noticed lately that quirky doesn’t appeal to me as much as it used to.

Russell’s language is occasionally captivating, though it doesn’t always make sense in context. The last story, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” involves a group of teenagers who find a weird scarecrow that resembles a classmate of theirs in the park where they hang out with. It’s told in first person, possibly at some distance in time, yet it doesn’t really give me a sense of teenage boys, even though parts of it sound lovely:

We’d been meeting under this oak for four years, ever since we were ten years old. Back then we played actual games. We hid and we sought. We did benign stuff in trees. We amassed a plastic weapons cache in the hollow of the oak that included the Sounds of Warfare Blazer, a toy gun that required sixteen triple-A batteries to make a noise like a tubercular guinea pig.

Throughout the book, her stories excel more in concept than execution — they have great synopses that don’t really pan out into compelling narratives. The title story, about two vampires who stave off their hunger for blood by sucking on lemons, is a prime example. It sounds interesting, but doesn’t go anywhere interesting. “Reeling for the Empire,” where a group of women in Japan are selected to serve their country by being transformed into silk worms, has the most appealing ending of the group: the women rebel and begin using their silk to construct cocoons for themselves so they can molt into giant moths. Even though that doesn’t actually happen on the page, the impression is striking.