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Monday, March 4, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Book review
‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’: the real lives of vampires, monsters and bullies

By Moira Macdonald
Special to The Seattle Times

‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’

by Karen Russell

Knopf, 243 pp., $24.95

Monsters abide in Karen Russell’s new short-story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”; both the horror-movie kind, and the hidden sort that live within each of us. Russell, who showed in her 2011 debut novel “Swamplandia!” an uncanny knack for combining realistic characters and wildly over-the-top behavior, here brings us eight tales of the remarkable; of something that can’t entirely be explained. We’re left haunted and a little changed by the experience, as if we’ve wandered through someone else’s nightmare and emerged, blinking, on the other side.

Russell starts us off with her most conventional monster, in the book’s title story: a genial vampire known as Clyde (who would expect a fellow named Clyde to be a vampire?) who lives near a Sorrento lemon grove with his partner. Immortal, they’ve lived everywhere — “Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca” — and try to slake their bloodlust by sinking fangs into fresh lemons. They are “two holes cleaved together, two twin hungers” — but, ultimately, cannot change their natures. A different fate comes to the heroine of “Reeling for the Empire”; a young Japanese woman held captive in a silk factory, finding herself (through magic tea) turned part-woman part-silkworm, threads issuing from her belly. In this horror story turned revenge tale, the Frankenstein-esque creatures finally discover their power.

There are comical hybrids here, too: “The Barn at the End of Our Term” imagines a group of former Presidents as horses on a quiet farm, told from the point of view of Rutherford B. Hayes as a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare.” (Garfield is “a tranquil gray Percheron”; Warren Harding “a flatulent roan pony who can’t digest grass.”) Is that sheep he’s been eyeing really his wife Lucy? Is this some sort of presidential Heaven? It’s a charmer of a story, and a welcome respite in a collection of mostly grim but mesmerizing tales.

In “The New Veterans,” the monster is memory. A massage therapist treats a young Iraq war veteran, whose back sports an elaborate tattoo that seems to be a graphic novel telling the story of his service — and which, when the therapist touches it, seems to move and change, rewriting his story, helping him heal. “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” introduces a teenager in need of healing, who finds help from an unexpected source: a seagull’s nest, filled with random yet meaningful flotsam that brings him, miraculously, what he wants. “If fate was just a tapestry with a shifting design — some fraying skein that the gulls were tearing right this second — then Nal didn’t see why he couldn’t also find a loose thread, and pull.”

“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” which concludes the collection, is a powerhouse of a story about a too-familiar monster: a troubled teenage boy who deals with his own demons by bullying — and who one night finds a scarecrow in a New Jersey park that looks uncannily like a fellow teen he once brutalized. Larry, the narrator (nearly every story in this volume has a first-person narration), is part of a small gang of four, calling themselves Camp Dark and bonded together by a determination not to acknowledge their own unhappy home lives.

We, like Larry, don’t understand the mystery of the scarecrow, but we don’t need to. Russell’s stories let us accept, without questioning, that which is unexplainable; there’s a you-couldn’t-make-this-up quality to her writing that makes it simultaneously fantastical and real. Beverly, the massage therapist in “The New Veterans,” hits on this, in her story’s final words, as she ponders whether the veteran’s tattoo has been magically transformed. “In her wildest imaginings,” she thinks, “Zeiger finds both things — a story he can carry, and a true one.”

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.


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