Book Review – “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell


I was never too keen on short stories growing up. I’ve always liked getting completely immersed in lengthy novels, losing myself in another world, and the short stories I was reading always felt too . . . well . . . short to get lost in. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of short stories. In my humble opinion, a well-rounded reader should be able to at least appreciate written work in all forms (I still struggle with reading plays, but can appreciate their merit). I recently read this beautifully written article by Junot Diaz on LitHub about the beauty of the short story, and it deserves a read; it really reflects how I’ve been feeling lately about them. Earlier this year I read The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction for the first time, and each story in the collection completely blew me away. My ill-advised, half-formed opinion about short stories not providing a world to get lost in was shot to hell. And I’m so glad it was, because I probably would never have given Vampires in the Lemon Grove a real chance otherwise.

This collection, by Karen Russell of Swamplandia! fame, is dark, hilarious, introspective, and eerie. Each story includes a supernatural element, which gives the reader the unsettling feeling that virtually anything can happen at any time in these stories. Nobody is constrained by the rules of this world, and it can be off-putting, but in the best, creepiest way. The stories were all very, very good, but in the interest of time, I’ll only talk about three I loved and one I thought was just okay.

Reeling for the Empire is about a group of girls in feudal Japan who are basically sold by their fathers to a mysterious businessman in order to make money for the family and serve the empire by reeling silk for one year. In reality, these poor girls are enslaved indefinitely, turned into humanoid silkworms who must spin their uniquely-colored silk constantly to avoid death. The one girl who actually volunteers to go, as opposed to being sold, is the one who starts shaking things up in the factory after she finds out what is expected of the girls. This story is just bizarre, perfectly imagined, and exquisitely executed. Russell takes an outlandish premise and (dare I say) spins it into a story that explores the strength of women and the power of unity.

In The New Veterans, a massage therapist takes on a new client – a young veteran fresh from the front lines, who has a full-back tattoo memorializing the day a colleague died in a bombing. As the therapist works on this young man, she mysteriously finds herself able to physically manipulate his massive, intricate tattoo and slowly taking on his memories and, consequently, his PTSD. The more she works on him, the less he remembers and the more he physically and mentally heals – for better and for worse. I don’t pretend to know what veterans have to live with on a daily basis, but this story presents a different take on the traditional narrative about what civilians know and think of what homecoming soldiers deal with in everyday life. For me, it emphasized the fact that although we can listen to stories, unless we’ve actively engaged in battle or lived in a war-torn country, we can never truly know what that experience is like.

The final story in the collection, The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, is the story that haunted me the most. In it, the main characters, a group of bullying teenage brats, come upon a scarecrow that seems like any old scarecrow, until they look at it a little closer. After a bit of teenage-boy joking and general tomfoolery with the scarecrow, the boys begin to realize that it very closely resembles a boy they used to bully who just disappeared one day – Eric Mutis. What is so freaky about the scarecrow is that the more they look at it and the closer they get to it, the more it appears that someone has transformed the real Eric into something made out of wax, glass, and straw. The description of this scarecrow straight up freaked me out. It has dead, staring, but humanoid eyes, and later we find that the body is stuffed with the same grass-like substance Eric used to put in his bunny’s cage. These boys used to really go after poor Eric, both physically and mentally, and through flashbacks we find that despite it all, he was still kind to them. Eric was treated like trash by his peers and teachers alike, and when he just stopped showing up for school one day, they all quite literally forgot about him. Heartbreaking. It is revealed that he had a troubled home life (to what extent we don’t know), and now it seems he may have come to a terrible fate. And because these boys harassed him instead of protecting him, they are all partially responsible. I think I’d have to reread this one to fully grasp the entire subtext, but I found it to be a rumination on bullying and what happens to kids like Eric who fall through the cracks every day. This story was mesmerizing and terrifying all at once. I loved it.

The story I liked the least was actually the most overtly comedic of the bunch. Reading Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is like reading a football-tailgating manual, only the teams are whales vs. krill. Dougbert is rooting for the little guy, hoping that this year the krill will overpower the whales. He is also actually mourning the dissolution of his marriage, and it’s hilarious to read. This story is objectively a good and funny one, it’s simply just out of place in this collection. I think it’s more fit for the amazing website McSweeney’s than for this particular book.

Part of what sets this collection apart and makes it so enthralling is the latent supernatural element, which left me unsure of what was real and what wasn’t most of the time. These stories are quite a departure from what I’ve read in short stories before, and on the whole they are so layered and complex that I felt like I only picked up on a fraction of their meanings. As with horror movies, it’s not knowing what’s around the corner that is the worst, and also the most captivating thing about this collection.

Recommended For:

Readers who like short, engrossing narratives, supernatural tales, and a dash of horror in their stories.