The dark fantastic

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99/Knopf, RRP$24.95, 256 pages

Karen Russell’s first short story collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) was characterised by an outlandish imagination and vivid turn of phrase, qualities underlined by her Pulitzer-shortlisted debut novel, Swamplandia! (2011), about an alligator theme park in the Everglades. The eight stories in her second collection demonstrate a similar relish for the fantastical.

Each tale shows Russell’s skill at putting across a voice or point of view. She variously captures the wistful detachment of an elderly vampire in Sorrento, Italy, the timidity of a middle-aged masseuse (“The New Veterans”) and the sneering, cocky defensiveness of a sports fan in a version of the near-future (“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”). Some stories have a darker tone throughout. “Proving Up” is a nightmarish tale of pioneers staking their claim in Nebraska, thwarted by lack of rain and the slow grind of a life that turns the most robust-seeming family into an engine of destruction. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” tracks the shifting allegiances of a child gang as they circle their prey, a blameless and unprotesting boy who suddenly vanishes, to be replaced by a creepy mannequin.

Russell’s odd scenarios are springboards to serious themes. In “The New Veterans”, Beverly, who works at the marvellously titled Dedos Mágicos massage parlour, becomes obsessed with the tattoo on the back of a new client, ex-soldier Derek. It shows a village in Iraq where a comrade was killed but Beverly’s fingers seem to be able to manipulate the image itself, and thereby possibly alter Derek’s memories. An impossible premise is used to explore issues of post-traumatic stress, survivor guilt and transference, alongside ageing and inappropriate professional conduct.

Similarly, the title story is an offbeat examination of marriage, as Clyde and his wife Magreb slake their hunger by sinking fangs into the lush fruit (“It’s only these lemons that give us any relief”). Magreb may be able to turn into a bat and fly up the cliff-side, but that doesn’t make her any less of a wife: “Human marriages amuse me: the brevity of the commitment and all the ceremony that surrounds it ... Till death do us part! Easy.”

The grandfatherly Clyde, is far less cuddly than he appears and drinks more than just the lemon juice: “The girl’s head lolls against my shoulder like a sleepy child’s, then swings forward in a rag doll circle.”

Perhaps the most bizarre story is “The Barn at the End of our Term”, where 11 horses out of 22 stabled at a farm are former US presidents, who, despite hooves and tails, persist in pursuing their political aims. James Garfield is “a tranquil gray Percheron”, James Buchanan “a fastidious bay”. “There must be some way back to Washington!” says the horrified new arrival, “a thoroughbred with four white socks and a cranberry tint to his mane” who turns out to be John Adams. “I’m not dead either, John Adams,” Eisenhower says. “I’m just incognito. The Secret Service must have found some way to hide me here, until such time as I can return to my body and resume governance of this country.”

There is one misfire in the collection – “Reeling for the Empire”, where the fancifulness feels forced. It baffles me that I can happily accept a story in which horses are also dead American presidents but not one where young Japanese women mutate into giant silkworms, but the neat, macabre ending seems a long time coming and the tale spins invention for invention’s sake.

At their best, though, these stories use the fantastical to make mythic sense of the human struggle, and perfectly balance light and dark, funny and serious, wacky and realistic.

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