In Karen Russell’s universe, by the time a story sets itself in motion the worst has already happened. You may be a bloodless vampire who has lost the taste for anything but the tang of lemons. Or you could be a young woman sold into slavery so complete that it literally dehumanizes you. Or perhaps you are the president of the United States who awakens to find himself metamorphosed (among other former presidents) into a farmyard horse. In any case, things certainly seem like they could not get worse, for your very self has been ripped away, leaving you with nothing left to lose.
These ordeals—three among the eight lying in wait for you within Vampires in the Lemon Grove—happen to “you” because Russell’s language is so vivid and sensuous that they become breathtakingly real experiences. This is horror fiction at its playful and unflinching worst . . . and therefore best. No wonder Stephen King expressed his delighted recognition of a worthy young colleague when Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia!, came out last year.
Just because the worst already appears to be a matter of record, events in each story tend to get suddenly much, much worse, making the former “worst” look stupid by contrast. That’s what happens in the collection’s finest tale, “Proving Up,” which won this year’s National Magazine Award for Fiction. The denouement of this startling fable of pioneer hardship belongs spiritually to Willa Cather’s darkest nightmares, chilling to the last horrific sentence.
The strange predicate offered in the first sentence of this review—the notion that a story “sets itself in motion”—is as precise as I can make it. Russell’s short tales—like the acclaimed Swamplandia!—have the feel of autonomous creatures: The author gives a wicked little push and they’re off and chomping. If the worst has already happened; if, Job-like, you’ve got nothing left to lose, then the whirlwind best is yet to be—as in the last, haunting story of the book, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” where you are a boy who has been dreadfully cruel to another boy and now the time has come for your comeuppance. You can hardly wait.