Book musing: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I’ve been meaning to read more modern, award-winning short stories. If I’m serious about my career as a writer, producing successful short stories is the best way to build a reputation for myself before I try to sell a book manuscript. A friend recommended Vampires in the Lemon Grove to me, so I was looking forward to this audiobook.

(Side note: I just learned that the author is only seven years older than me.)

Unfortunately, I had a hard time with the majority of the stories in this anthology. I liked the whimsy that drove most of them (such as former U.S. presidents reincarnated as horses, and the scenario suggested in the title), but I never felt really engaged with any of them (beside the silkworm girls). I even took breaks occasionally to listen to the radio, which is highly uncharacteristic of my audiobook listening.

This reminds me of when I listened to Too Much Happiness, by the estimable Alice Munroe, a few years ago. The title became for me quite an ironic — or perhaps unironic — fit for the book: so many of the characters carried a form of misery, it really brought me down. I can read difficult books and tragedies that speak directly about real world issues, but there are certain types — especially when I can’t see any hope offered — I don’t find worthwhile. (The Road by Cormac McCarthy, for instance, is not a book I ever intend to read.)

Vampires in the Lemon Grove was not that type of book for me (the whimsy and imagination alone are redemptive), but with only two exceptions, I can’t say I enjoyed its stories. I will qualify that perhaps this is a time when listening to the audiobook produced a significantly different effect than reading the lines. I don’t have the time to test that theory, but I’ll allow it’s possible, especially for works like the title story that depend heavily on atmosphere, mood, and setting.

Rather than getting too serious in my analysis of the anthology, I’ll offer a quick synopsis of each story and why it did or didn’t work for me, even though it may be a very personal response. Warning for SPOILERS.

  • “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is another take on the highly competitive realm of vampires, mixed with all-too-mundane marital exhaustion. A girl is bled out at the end. This is not new.
  • “Reeling for the Empire” is the story for me, oh yes. The details of the deceived and exploited girls were maddening at first, but the payoff is so, so worth it. Also a clever allegory for the drudgery of factory work.
  • “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” is a coming-of-age story for a boy competing with his older brother, who gets to the younger boy’s crush first. Also not new. But the role of the seagull army, and the reflections on misplaced objects changing the future, were more novel and thought-provoking.
  • “Proving Up” is a story about monsters/sociopaths on the prairie in the pioneer days. I think everyone dies. This is not a story for me. (Though I did appreciate the realistic detail of how fucking hard and awful pioneers’ lives were, how brave they had to be. It reminded me of an article I read about the folly of the Mars One program, what it would be like to live on an alien world with no hope of anyone coming to help you. And I flinched at the 30-year-old mother with a 16-year-old son.)
  • “The Barn at the End of our Term” is the one about U.S. presidents reincarnated as horses, struggling to reclaim the sense of purpose they had in life, arguing about whether they can run again for office if they escape and gallop to Washington. It’s also about a more ordinary human element, as the main character (Rutherford B. Hayes) longs for his deceased wife and convinces himself for a while that she’s a blind sheep on the same farm. Entertaining enough, though the ending didn’t pack much of a punch.
  • “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules of Antarctic Tailgating” is amusing, and does provide insight to Dougbert Shackleton, but…not really engaging.
  • “The New Veterans” was way more difficult for me than I would have supposed, had I just heard a quick summary of its parts: massages, PTSD, supernatural tattoos influencing their wearers. But the execution of the story was so dreary to me, as encapsulated in the moment Beverly wraps her hands around her own throat while lying in bed at night. This is not a story for me.
  • “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is the one that provided the most trouble for me — I had to give it several breaks, turning to the radio — yet I am glad I persevered to the end (hoping that the scarecrow remnants would hunt down and murder the boys, one by one, in Final Destination-esque scenarios). The group of cruel 14-year-old boys was too realistic to enjoy, yet there was a scrap of humanity in the narrator — enough to provide the final image of him down in the well with the rabbit, standing guard over the mutilated scarecrow. There is that line: “Somewhere I think I must still be standing, just like that.” That is enough to satisfy me.

I feel awkward writing this “review,” since so much of my judgment rests on my personal feelings and associations with certain topics. But isn’t that true for every reader, with every work? That’s why we all react to certain things differently. For some, Star Wars is everything; for others, it’s Star Trek or Lord of the Rings.

With some works that fail to please me, I can easily identify technical weaknesses: problems with plot, dialogue, or character development, for instance. I can’t make any such complaint about Karen Russell’s writing. Those who like horror, for instance, may find “Proving Up” an exceptionally good story.

So how did this anthology (which seems pretty well acclaimed) enrich my understanding of the modern, respected short story and set a model to which I may aspire? It taught me there’s room for a lot of variety, both in subject and in stylistic presentation. It showed me an excellent standard for good writing and storytelling. Most importantly, it affirmed that age-old questions and struggles may be explored with fantasy elements. This isn’t a groundbreaking assertion, of course; it’s been going on for decades, but I’ve found it can still use reaffirming in many literary circles.

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