In Karen Russell’s novel, “Swamplandia!,” which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize (no fiction prize was given that year), one of the major characters attempts to elope with a ghost. In her most recent short story collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” (Knopf, 246 pages, $24.95), Russell demonstrates the impressive diversity of her imagination when it come to the unusual and the uncanny.
There are, of course, the vampires of the title story — lovers who seek to slake their thirst with lemons rather than the more traditional choice. There are the young women who have been transformed into human silk worms in “Reeling for the Empire.” There are seagulls with mystical powers over the future and the past in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.” Each of these stories — like the others in the collection — is built on a fantastical premise, and in each case, Russell renders her magical world wholly believable.
My favorite story in the book is “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” which finds a number of former U.S. presidents inhabiting the bodies of horses. Are they in Heaven? Hell? Should they band together and return to Washington? Rutherford B. Hayes — now a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eye stare” — seeks his beloved wife Lucy in the visage of a sheep and wonders about the nature of the Fence.
Here Eisenhower talks with the newly arrived John Adams, both of them sure they are not truly horses: “There is always this period of denial when new presidents first arrive in the Barn. Eisenhower still refuses to own up to his own mane and tail. ‘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. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I’m no horse.’”
The story is both funny and poignant, its situation offbeat and yet recognizable. Russell’s characters, no matter how strange or changed, are fully human. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is filled with masterfully crafted tales of wonder.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.