On Books: Vampires in the Lemon Grove

While Karen Russell may or may not believe in Hell, she does believe in Florida. She lives there. For writers, every state has its own quirky aspect: an author adds a supernatural element to the dark rumors that swirl around Maine to become the King of horror; dozens of New Mexican authors have drawn inspiration from the hyped tales of Billy the Kid; and at the core of any Big Apple tale, New York itself is a main character.

VampiresInTheLemonGrove_Sidebar1Florida, however, is something special, and in her two previous books, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia, Russell not only captures the hell and hilarity of her home on paper, she makes it believable. With the release of Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories, Russell goes beyond the comforts of her home to discover unlikely places for her stories. From steampunk silk factories to a presidential horse barn, she crafts a variety of settings and populates them with realistic monsters and people. Russell’s fans will recognize that it’s rarely easy to know which is which when a character first appears.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a tough collection to classify. While ostensibly and consciously literary fiction, the individual stories, which traverse the gamut from alternate history to fantasy to horror and magical realism, are the ideals of their genres.

Russell’s title story opens in a nineteenth century Italian lemon grove where an old vampire is forced to confront the hell of aging while his wife, still young enough to transform into a bat, takes comfort in caves he will never reach. Continents and cultures shift as Russell weaves her silken tale “Reeling for the Empire,” where young women are forced to work without end in the most monstrous of sweatshops. Later in the collection, she brings readers into the VA-approved massage room of “The New Veterans” to meet a young soldier who carries a shifting memorial on his back.

For Russell, time and space are like Dante’s rings. She glides from one to another as freely as Virgil, pausing only to introduce new characters to her readers. None of them are happy, but none of them are content to be victims either. They’re as humorous as they are serious. They may create their own hells, but they shape them to suit their needs.


Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories
Karen Russell
Alfred A. Knopf (February 2013)

Joseph Thompson’s work has appeared in several publications including Foreword Reviews, Greenman Reviews, and Aphelion Webzine.


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