Karen Russell’s first collection of short stories, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” knocked my socks off in 2006. Her second, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” raised the hairs on the back of my neck seven years later.
Her third story collection, “Orange World,” makes me want to shout with joy. Russell’s ease with her material, her sheer glee on the page, shines through in each piece. There are just eight stories here, but each one holds a tiny, complete vision: eight delicious wedges of an orange.
Whether her characters are young women attempting to escape a majestic Northwest ski lodge populated by ghosts, a boy who falls in love with a body preserved in a bog or a zombie doctor on the island of Corfu, their voices and personae grab readers by their figurative lapels and demand attention.
But more than Russell’s odd characters and singular settings grabbed me this time around. As I read through the tales, I was struck by how she pays homage to her fantasy and science-fiction predecessors. “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound,” at first sad and ultimately just, could have been written by Peter S. Beagle. “The Tornado Auction” put me in mind of Arthur C. Clarke, “The Bad Graft” of Ray Bradbury, and so forth. Russell’s assurance now extends to honoring those who helped her master a genre.
Interesting, then, that the final, eponymous story veers more toward horror than the others. Russell has never shied away from that genre, either; her 2011 novel “Swamplandia!” merged sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and horror in its examination of female puberty and male sexual violence. “Orange World” involves a young mother named Rae and the deal she strikes with the Devil to keep her pregnancy. Once again, Russell combines the workings of a woman’s body with dark, evil forces. Her foremother here has to be Mary Shelley, who understood that the gift of life arrives with strings attached.
So do the women in Rae’s mothers’ group, who greet one another less as people than as collections of their postnatal trauma. “My name is Halimah. I had a C-section, and I feel like a library where they misshelved all the books.” As Rae nurses the Devil to keep her infant son alive and safe from the perils of “Orange World,” the realm of household terrors, she learns from these women that she’s been dealing not with the Devil but a devil: “Rookie mistake, babe,” one of the other mothers tells Rae. And with that sardonic twist, Russell reminds us we’re in the hands of a master.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Karen Russell
Knopf. 288 pp. $25.95