“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell (2013) – 243 pages
After my extremely positive reaction to “Swamplandia” by Karen Russell, I fully expected that my review of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” would be filled with paroxysms of delight. However such is not the case. I found the story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” only intermittently interesting.
So how is “Vampires” so different from “Swamplandia”? First although the main characters in these stories include vampires, young Chinese women, ex-Presidents reincarnated as horses, etc., these characters did not seem sharply delineated. Whereas each member of the Big Tree family in “Swamplandia” had their own distinctive personality and behavior traits which made them special, little attempt is made here in any of these stories to give the side characters a distinguishing touch.
The most disappointing example for me was the story “The Barn at the End of Our Term” which is about ex-US Presidents re-incarnated as horses. Thus we have Rutherford Hayes, James Buchanan, William Harding, Dwight Eisenhower, and so on all now as horses. I could have gone along with this humorous gimmick if only each horse was given some peculiar trait of the ex-President they were supposed to be a re-incarnated from. Otherwise what’s the point? As it was, there was not even an attempt to relate the horse to the traits of the particular ex-President.
Each of these stories is based on a gimmick. Perhaps the most well-developed of the stories is “Reeling for the Empire” in which young Chinese girls are taken away from their families and given a strong tea drink that turns them into human silkworms. Give Russell credit; this is one sick disgusting idea for a story, especially when the girls start producing silk all over their bodies, and then the silk is extracted from them. However the story would have been much stronger if the individual girls and women were given more defined personalities.
Of course Russell has gotten a lot of static for putting vampires in the title of her story collection when so much lame writing today is about vampires. What I found most offensive is that it opens with the vampire story which is rather a loser story.
There were times when I could get caught up in a few of the stories and just enjoy them, but throughout the collection there was writing that just wasn’t that tight. The characters were sludgy and vague, and the plots were not well-framed.