Anything I can say about Karen Russell's latest short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, has to begin by going back to my evolving reaction to her acclaimed novel, Swamplandia! When I first read the latter, I wasn't a fan. It was creepy and strange and not at all what I had expected it to be from the way in which it was marketed. But after a year passed, I begin to appreciate it as one of the more memorable books I've read. All of the strange qualities that threw me at first were exactly what made such a strong impression that stuck with me over time. Having gone through this change of heart regarding Swamplandia!, I felt much more prepared going into Vampires in the Lemon Grove. With a better idea of what to expect, I found myself really enjoying the stories in this collection.
I probably should clarify that last sentence. Even though I had a better idea of what to expect from Russell's writing going into this book, that was only in the sense that I was braced for anything and everything. There was no way in which I could have predicted any of the specifics of the quirky, widely varied, stories that are included here. They're by turns fascinating, terrifying, and funny. I found myself comparing Russell's writing to the best possible (if unlikely) combination of Stephen King and Haruki Murakami. Some of her stories have classic horror elements to them, like vampires or a mysterious, self-mutilating scarecrow. The knot in my stomach that I had as I read Swamplandia! was out in full force again. Yet I also found myself surprisingly moved by one of the funnier, more unexpected stories in which dead U.S. presidents are reincarnated as a group of horses. It sounds so cliche to say that there's "something for everyone" in a story collection, but I think that might actually be the case here, at least for everyone who is willing to get pulled into a series of odd, vividly imagined fictional worlds.