Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories
Karen Russell, 2013
From the author of the New York Times best seller Swamplandia!—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—a magical new collection of stories that showcases Karen Russell’s gifts at their inimitable best.
A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest. A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso.
When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.
Karen Russell is one of today’s most celebrated and vital writers—honored in The New Yorker’s list of the twenty best writers under the age of forty, Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation’s five best writers under the age of thirty-five. Her wondrous new work displays a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers . (From the publisher.)
About the Author
• Birth—July 10, 1981
• Where—Miami, Florida, USA
• Education—B.A., Northwestern University
M.F.A. Columbia University
• Awards & Recognition—New Yorker's 20 Under 40;
Granta's Best Young American Novelists; National Book
Foundation's 5 Under 35; Mary Ellen von der Heyden
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
Karen Russell attended Northwestern University, where she earned her B.A. in 2003. She is a 2006 graduate of the Columbia University MFA program.
She was Margaret Bundy Scott Visiting Professor of English at Williams College.
Her stories have been featured in The Best American Short Stories, Conjunctions, Granta, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and Zoetrope.
She was named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" young writer honoree at a November 2009 ceremony, for her first book of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her second book, first novel Swamplandia! (2011), about a shabby amusement park set in the Everglades, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and long-listed for the Orange Prize.
In 2013, she released another short story collection to excellent reviews: Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
She is the recipient of the Mary Ellen von der Heyden Berlin Prize and was a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin for Spring 2012. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
…Ms. Russell deftly combines elements of the weird and supernatural with acute psychological realism; elements of the gothic with dry, contemporary humor. From apparent influences as disparate as George Saunders, Saki, Stephen King, Carson McCullers and Joy Williams, she has fashioned a quirky, textured voice that is thoroughly her own: by turns lyrical and funny, fantastical and meditative. Vampires in the Lemon Grove shows Ms. Russell more in control of her craft than ever…In these tales [she] combines careful research (into, say, a legend, a historical episode or a tradecraft) with minutely imagined details and a wonderfully vital sleight of hand to create narratives that possess both the resonance of myth and the immediacy of something new.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
Russell is no coy or mannered mistress of the freaky. Much of the pleasure in reading her comes from the wily freshness of her language and the breezy nastiness of her observations…A grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories.
Joy Williams - New York Times Book Review
Vampires in the Lemon Grove should cement [Russell's] reputation as one of the most remarkable fantasists writing today…Two of these tales are among the best and most chilling I've read in years…[the] exquisite precision and conflation of the commonplace with the marvelous is a hallmark of Russell's prose style, infusing her work with a sense of the uncanny that keeps a reader off balance right until the last sentence.
Elizabeth Hand - Washington Post
Exquisitely peculiar…Vampires trades in the mythological waters of the Florida Everglades for eight new, but still darkly fantastical and dangerous worlds that constantly remind the reader that monsters and violence are always around the corner, and in ourselves.
Wall Street Journal
Russell returns to the story form with renewed daring, leading us again into uncharted terrain, though as fantastic as the predicaments she imagines are, the emotions couldn’t be truer to life.... Mind-blowing, mythic, macabre, hilarious.
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.... 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.
The New Yorker's 20 Under 40. Granta's Best Young American Novelists. The National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35. Russell surely has had a stellar career, straight out of the gate. Her new collection echoes the witty lusciousness of her first novel, Pulitzer finalist Swamplandia! .... [T]he title piece features two vampires whose 100-year-old marriage is on the skids because one has developed a fear of flying. A few stories, like those about abandoned children, lose the wit and lusciousness and go all dark.
A consistently arresting, frequently stunning collection of eight stories. Though Russell enjoyed her breakthrough--both popular and critical--with her debut novel (Swamplandia!, 2011), she had earlier attracted notice with her short stories (St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, 2006). Here, she returns to that format with startling effect, reinforcing the uniqueness of her fiction, employing situations that are implausible, even outlandish, to illuminate the human condition..... Even more impressive than Russell's critically acclaimed novel.
1. Discuss the relationship between Clyde and Magreb, the two vampires in the title story whose hundred-year marriage is tested when one of them develops a fear of flying. Do you think the author believes they have a good marriage? What is the impact of Clyde’s inability to transmute? Consider this quote from the beginning of the story: “I once pictured time as a black magnifying glass and myself as a microscopic flightless insect trapped in that circle of night. But then Magreb came along, and eternity ceased to frighten me.” What is the author saying here about mortal—and immortal—love?
2. How might “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” be read as a parable of appetite and addiction? Note the linguistic forms in which the author couches references to the vampires’ need for blood.
3. “I blinked down at a little blond child and then saw that my two hands were shaking violently, soundlessly, like old friends wishing not to burden me with their troubles. I dropped the candies into the children’s bags, thinking: You small mortals don’t realize the power of your stories” (p. 13). What is the author saying here about the nature of truth, the power of myth, and the role of storytelling in shaping identity?
4. In “Reeling for the Empire,” Tooka asks, “Are we monsters now?” (p. 31) In the title story, Clyde reflects, “Magreb was the first and only other vampire I’d ever met. We bared our fangs over a tombstone and recognized each other. There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species. And now that loneliness was over.” (p. 9) How are Clyde and Magreb similar to the reelers? What do these two stories have in common thematically? What do you think the author might be trying to say here about exile and community, shape-shifting and transformation?
5. Look at the passage in “Reeling for the Empire” where Kitsune describes the phenomenon of the thread: “Here is the final miracle, I say: our silk comes out of us in colors. There is no longer any need to dye it. There is no other silk like it on the world market, boasts the Agent.…Nobody has ever guessed her own color correctly—Hoshi predicted hers would be peach and it was blue; Nishi thought pink, got hazel. I would bet my entire five-yen advance that mine would be light gray, like my cat’s fur. But then I woke and pushed the swollen webbing of my thumb and a sprig of green came out. On my day zero, in the middle of my terror, I was surprised into a laugh: here was a translucent green I swore I’d never seen before anywhere in nature, and yet I knew it as my own on sight” (pp. 31–32). How do you account for the joyfulness of this discovery? What do you think the author is trying to communicate about the nature of identity, and of our essential selves?
6. Discuss Kitsune’s transformation [PE1] on p. 39. What does it mean that her thread changes from green to black?
7. “Reeling” ends with a violent, dramatic twist. What happens? How did this make you feel? Is this a happy ending or a sad one?
8. What do the seagulls represent to Nal in “The Seagull Army descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” and how does their symbolism change throughout the story? Initially Nal takes them for his conscience—later, for omens. Discuss Nal’s nightmare, and how the seagulls relate to Nal’s understanding of the past, present, and future. Why does he consider the seagulls “cosmic scavengers” (p. 75), and what do you think that means?
9. Many of the stories in Russell’s collection pivot on fantasies: Beverly’s fantasy of magically healing Sgt. Derek Zeiger in “The New Veterans”; Dougbert’s faith in Team Krill in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” and a commitment to rooting for the underdog that destroys his marriage and causes him to run the risk of botulism, cannibalism, and frostbite; the Zegner family’s dream of proving up on their claim and becoming homesteaders even if it kills them; the dead presidents’ fantasies of running for reelection and their inability to relinquish their dreams of power despite being reincarnated as horses in “The Barn at the End of Our Term.” In what way might these fantasies be considered uniquely American?
10. A number of the stories in this collection orbit the themes of regret and atonement, and how to deal with wrongdoing and events that evoke anguish and guilt: Kitsune, Larry Rubio, and Sgt. Derek Zeiger are all grappling, to varying degrees, with issues of culpability. In all of these cases, memory plays a vital role in the rituals of atonement. Discuss.
11. In “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” a group of boys stumble on a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment. There are powerfully sinister undertones here, and it could certainly be read as Karen Russell’s first horror story. But there are also themes of expiation and redemption in “Eric Mutis.” In what ways can it be read as a hopeful story?
12. Many of the stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are intensely comic, with absurd and magical predicaments—vampires in love; post-presidential horses; talismanic objects; miraculous tattoos that can transform the past; girls that turn into silkworms. Yet as readers we can see ourselves in each of these stories. No matter how outlandish the situation, the emotionand the vulnerability that Russell captures is recognizably our own. Which stories moved you most, or spoke to you most powerfully? Why?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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