In “Reeling for the Empire,” one of the eight stories appearing in Karen Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” a young woman pines for adventure in a rapidly changing 19th-century Japan. Falling for the dubious charms of a “recruitment agent,” what she gets instead is a life-draining job in a silk factory.
This being Russell — author of the wildly imaginative “Swamplandia!” as well as an equally inventive prior story collection — a potentially naturalistic tale lands instead in the twilight zone.
In her workplace, Kitsune Tajima tells us, girls and young women are themselves transformed, with each of them becoming a “secret, furred and fleshy silk factory” who eats mulberry leaves and attaches herself to a machine that gathers the silk she secretes. Without those machines, the silk women will die — or so it seems, until they concoct a satisfying revenge.
“Reeling” is one of many stories in “Vampires” with protagonists who — like intrepid, 13-year-old Ava in “Swamplandia!” — are simultaneously impatient to grow up and horrified by the consequent changes, to the body and the self. Desire never brings peace to Russell’s characters; no matter how exciting, it is also always troubling.
In “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” a restless 14-year-old boy has a crush on a classmate — only to see her take up instead with his older, promiscuous brother. He wants to be a good sport, but he can’t outrun the barely acknowledged hatred and lust roiling within him.
In the title story, an always-thirsty vampire tries to curb a craving for blood that he never outgrows, leaving him unable to settle into the give-and-take of a normal marriage, in which desire and need are negotiated rather than imposed or repressed. Like the predatory drifter who stalks Ava in “Swamplandia!,” the vampire remains an undeveloped boy, even as he ages.
In “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” a slanted homage to Stephen King’s “The Body,” four teenage boys come upon a scarecrow dressed as a classmate they had mercilessly taunted. The boogeyman forces one boy to confront his fear of the tender relationship this classmate had once offered — an alternative to the repressed, macho world that imprisons him and his friends.
The troubled souls in these stories rarely move beyond their own confining solitude — and unacknowledged needs — into true mutuality.
It’s telling that the story in the collection that tries hardest to imagine such a relationship — bringing together a troubled war veteran and a massage therapist — is among the least successful. “The New Veterans” is done in by its overworked, self-conscious symbolism, segregated plot lines and abrupt conclusion — problems that afflict several stories in “Vampires.”
In contrast to “Veterans,” the best story in “Vampires” offers the least hope that we might ever overcome our crippling isolation. Set in rural Nebraska in 1877, “Proving Up” is narrated by 11-year-old Miles, who undertakes a perilous mission to a distant farm. As its title suggests, it too is a coming-of-age story, in which the journey is once again both liberating and a nightmare.
As is true throughout this collection, “Proving Up” exhibits the gorgeous writing that has characterized Russell’s work from the beginning. Here’s one example, as Miles describes his father’s repressed rage at an unforgiving land that is killing him and his family:
“Pa’s whole body draws back like a viper in its gold burnoose. I close my eyes and see the shadow of his secret self throbbing along the wall of our sod barn: his head rolling to its own music and sloshing with poisons. Even in the quiet I can hear him rattling.”
As this representative passage suggests, Russell has a gift for metaphor; like this one, many involve animals. It’s exactly what one would expect from a writer who has once again mapped the dark country between our everyday and more primal selves.