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Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Review

2014 January 13



I read Karen Russell’s first story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolvesa few years ago, with my Boston book club. I really liked it–it was weird and haunting and so different from other short stories I’d read.

A few years later, I read her novel Swamplandia! and was one of the few people I know who did enjoy it, despite its creepy darkness.

So I had high hopes for her latest collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  And it’s not that I was disappointed, exactly. I think that perhaps reading it in January, at the height of darkness and cold and my own personal darkness, was not an ideal time for this collection, as brimming as it is with real-life monsters, cruelty, and haunting imagery.

For me, there were several standouts–in particular, “Prove Up,” the story of a young boy in the wilds of Nebraska in the 1800’s, trying desperately to help his family and neighbors “prove up,” so they could own the land they’d been living on for five years. The story is Shirley Jackson-level creepy, with a dark stranger showing up in the middle of a freak blizzard, catching the boy off guard. In “The New Veterans,” Bev, a massage therapist, discovers she is able to help a patient of hers, a tattooed veteran of the Iraq war, in a horrifying way. “Reeling for the Empire” tells the story of young women conscripted by a mysterious “agent” to reel silk in China; only this is no ordinary silk factory–the women find themselves transformed after drinking a special tea, seemingly held forever in the grip of the factory.

There’s no doubt about it–Russell is a master of language and her stories are rich and dark, like the best kinds of chocolate. However, there are places where the plotlines twist too far into blackness, where the pain is too vividly imagined. The otherworldly creepiness that pervades each of her stories isn’t explicable, and left me with a sense of confusion more often than not.

If you’re a huge Karen Russell fan, I would recommend this for sure. If you’re looking for a dark story collection, go for it. But if creepy and weird isn’t your style, steer clear of this one.


Have any of you read it? What did you think?

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