Karen Russell’s third book, the story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” should cement her reputation as one of the most remarkable fantasists writing today. Not that there was ever much doubt about that. Her debut collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” helped garner her the prestigious “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, and its follow-up, the novel “Swamplandia!,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 (the year the board made the controversial decision to present no award for fiction). “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” earns out on this promise: Two of these tales are among the best and most chilling I’ve read in years.
With the exception of the extraordinary “Proving Up,” which hovers on a slender cusp that separates the supernatural from the mundane, all the stories here are firmly rooted in the fantastic. Clyde, protagonist of the title story, is a superannuated vampire mistaken for a “small, kindly Italian grandfather.” He sits, surrounded by tourists, and watches lemons being harvested in Sorrento. “Clyde,” exclaims his vampire wife, Magreb, “You need a hobby.”
In lieu of blood, Clyde and Magreb are sustained by lemons — “a vampire’s analgesic. . . . There is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling — a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums — a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain.”
This exquisite precision and conflation of the commonplace with the marvelous is a hallmark of Russell’s prose style, infusing her work with a sense of the uncanny that keeps a reader off balance right until the last sentence. In the two best stories, “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” Russell carefully constructs a world that is recognizably our own, then reveals the terrible abyss of human yearning and human evil that lies beneath it.
The narrator of “Proving Up” — originally published in Zoetrope: All-Story (Fall 2011) as “The Hox River Window” — is Miles, the young son of Nebraska homesteaders determined to stake a claim in a hellishly desolate, drought-stricken countryside. Here a sod house is “a hiccup in the earth,” and the air “can get as hot as the held breath of the world.” A requirement of the 1862 Homestead Act — that each house have a glass window — acquires sinister resonance among distant neighbors so impoverished that they share a single piece of glass, which makes the rounds whenever a Godot-like government inspector is rumored to be arriving.
Russell’s story draws on the catastrophic October blizzard of 1880, memorably evoked in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter.” But her account of Miles’s attempt to deliver the window moves inexorably into Cormac McCarthy territory, a journey into a distinctly American underworld where children run barefoot through a manmade cave and the command “Hold onto your claim” can become a death sentence. It’s a terrifying story. And probably best not read during a snowstorm.
“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” received the National Magazine Award for Fiction. Again, the horror arises from human agency: Four young teenage boys in a New Jersey city, as appalling an environment as the ravaged prairie, bully Eric, a frail classmate who suffers from epilepsy. Some time after Eric’s disappearance, the four boys discover a scarecrow that resembles him in the woods. The story is deeply disturbing: Its depictions of Eric’s torment and his tormenters are difficult to read, but even more excruciating is the narrator’s unexpected emotional and moral shift, after he encounters Eric on his own one day. It’s a beautiful, wrenching piece of work.
“Reeling for the Empire” is a more straightforward but still powerful horror story, in which Japanese peasant girls sold into slavery are forced to take part in a tea ceremony that turns them into human silkworms. The young Australian boy in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” finds a hollow tree where immense birds build a nest of lost things — ticket stubs, keys, screws — some of them from the future. Beverly, the massage therapist in “The New Veterans,” treats a traumatized veteran of the Iraq War who feels responsible for a fellow soldier’s death when their Humvee drove over a tripwire. He and the surviving members of their unit have the scene tattooed on their backs and, in a riff on Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” flesh and ink begin to morph into something inexplicable. The two remaining stories feel more like writing exercises, pallid imitations of George Saunders.
In many of these tales, the human body becomes a husk, within which something else evolves: parasitic silkworms, a homunculus, a horse, a scarecrow, a conscience. “Are we monsters now?” asks one of the mutant girls in “Reeling for the Empire.” Perhaps we are, Russell suggests in these beautiful tales, but not beyond redemption.
Hand’s most recent book is “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE
By Karen Russell
Knopf. 243 pp. $24.95