In Karen Russell’s new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, the vampire in question is a man who has long been awakened to the fallacies surrounding his own supernatural existence: daylight isn’t lethal to him, he doesn’t need to sleep in a coffin, and he doesn’t thrive on blood; lemons are as good a substitute as any. “These lemons are a vampire’s analgesic,” he says. “If you have been thirsty for a long time, if you have been suffering, then the absence of those two feelings, however brief, becomes a kind of heaven.”
The humanity in Russell’s characters is defined by the paranormal circumstances in which they find themselves: a young Japanese girl becomes a human silkworm; American presidents are reincarnated in the bodies of competitive racehorses; and a bullied boy seems to transform into a scarecrow. The diversity of the stories’ settings and points of view makes a reader anxious to find a connecting thread, but Russell doesn’t let us off so easy.
In a literary climate that prizes “serious” realism over playful fabulism, the 31 year-old Miami native emerged out of a different set of traditions when her debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, made an unexpected splash in 2006. In 2009, she earned a coveted spot on the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list, which was followed a year later by inclusion in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Fiction Issue. The question of how to categorize Russell has been floating around ever since. Is she a Southern Gothicist? A parabolist? A moralist? Do her stories expand upon old histories, or create new, fantastical explanations for them? But the stories, without ever confining themselves to one genre or tradition, speak for themselves. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, vied for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize against Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and created a deadlock so powerful that it led to a nearly unprecedented no-winner tie.
In Vampires, out in February, the theme of willpower obliquely ties together a diverse cast of antiheroes in a way that seems at once unconscious and designed. “I was thinking about powerlessness and what happens when a single event wants to violently repeat itself,” says Russell. “You’re trapped in the traumatic repetition of this one event from your past. How do you deal with it?” The cast of Vampires finds its own, usually destructive ways to cope, whether through mutiny, the exchange of memory, or a desperate struggle toward some kind of empty victory—all of which are, according to Russell, rooted in “this American idea that you can conquer and vanquish against all odds. There’s something beautiful about it and there’s also something really dangerous and delusional about it.”
The pitiful, strident nature of that delusion is one of Vampires’ strengths, and the enjoyment Russell gets from stepping into other viewpoints is evident from the empathy with which she portrays them. “For a lot of writers, their big experiment would be to write from the point of view of a lamprey eel or something, but for me, the lamprey eel is much easier to create than a middle-aged woman from the Midwest. I was talking to an editor friend about having a hard time with a female character because she was just a regular woman, and he was like, ‘Well, why don’t you just give her a brain tumor! Or green wings!’ I was like, You’ve got my number, man.”
Russell’s next project is a novel that takes place in and around the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a catastrophic period that threatens to repeat itself in the wake of present-day ecological-economic disasters. “Interesting things happen to humans in disasters,” she says. “I think that’s part of the reason why everyone loves zombie movies and post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a real curiosity about what we would become in those shorn seasons. But I don’t believe that it would be so totally Hobbesian, where everyone becomes a monster and goes cannibal and starts looting—I think it’s more complex.”
Photography by Asger Carlsen