cover image Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell. Knopf, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-307-95723-8

There are only eight stories in Russell’s new collection, but as readers of Swamplandia! know, Russell doesn’t work small. She’s a world builder, and the stranger the better. Not that she writes fantasy, exactly: the worlds she creates live within the one we know—but sometimes they operate by different rules. Take “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”: Nal, its main character, is your basic dejected 14-year-old boy whose brother gets the girls and whose mother has more or less given up; “Nal was a virgin. He kicked at a wet clump of sand until it exploded.” But in this beach town, the seagulls have secrets. Or consider “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” a story of high school bullying that extends a familiar plot line in eerie and convincing ways. Similarly, “The New Veterans,” in which a middle-aged masseuse works on a young Iraq War vet haunted by his buddy’s death, blurs horror, the genre, with the horror of daily life. Is the masseuse losing her mind? Is the vet? What about those ignoring the war entirely? Perhaps the answers lie in the veteran’s muddy, whole-back tattoo: “Light hops the fence of its design. So many colors go waterfalling down the man’s spine that, at first glance, she can’t make any sense of the picture.” While this story runs a little long, and the otherwise excellent “Proving Up” doesn’t need its final gothic touch, Russell’s great gift—along with her antic imagination—who else would give us a barn full of ex-presidents reincarnated as horses?—is her ability to create whole landscapes and lifetimes of strangeness within the confines of a short story. Agent: The Denise Shannon Literary Agency. (Feb.)