A Tart Taste of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Cynthia Sharp
Russell, Karen. Vampires in The Lemon Grove. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Short stories, Book/ Ebook.

 

Reviewed by Cynthia Sharp

 

Abstract

A one act inverse of a Twilight style romance, the lead story in particular in this contemporary collection of imagistic, supernatural horror stories catches readers with its bright imagery. Though tales sometimes end abruptly, perhaps intentionally ambiguous, leaving readers craving clarity, and though Russell’s themes are depressing, her visual language and color amalgamate the paranormal into short prose poetry pieces enticing for their use of imagery to move story. It’s an excellent example of containment with visuals that can translate easily into symbolic layers of meaning in film and television adaptations. It’s encouraging to see a short story author write poetically, a gift of permission to create artistic hybrids.

 

Academic Review from a Writer’s Perspective

A Tart Taste of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove

 

A decade since its release from Vintage Books, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove still carries a puckering punch. Lemons, in all their fresh sour reality are the key image in Russell’s title story from her 2013 collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a tale that would translate beautifully to screen. With a one act inverse structure of a Twilight style romance, Russell paints an imagistic horror story of the depressing side of human nature, suggesting that beyond the thrill of shock for entertainment, we can’t be complacent, that trust is conditional, that one hundred and thirty years may be too long for a marriage when all that’s left to experience is death, and more than anything, that the relationship between human nature and societal constructs has deep psychological origins. Readers can heed the message to be aware that murky aspects of humanity, such as the creepiness of an old man stalking a young woman, marital infidelity, selfishness, greed and indulgence are always lurking for those who have compulsions toward them, or simply ride the downward spiral of what appears at the start to be a gentle love story as it descends into compulsion, murder and the dissolution of civilized relations into eternal loneliness, gripping its readers with poetic imagery as Russel reveals story through stunning metaphors of nature.

The immediacy of the writing draws the reader in with the use of present tense, a temporal marker of this literary time period, going straight for the jugular without wasting time. Whether or not fast-paced fragments will endure to classic status is another issue, but they shine brightly in their moment before giving way to the next phases of literature. The direct, first person point of view hits all the right marks for current publishing trends. In the larger picture, one wonders if everything from our time period will end up sounding formulaically the same, and on the other hand, there’s much to be said for seizing the moment and painting with vibrant colour.

Ripe with the positive and negative symbolism of lemons, the story is laced with visual metaphor, from the opening description with its contrast of a lemon grove with black bats in caves, the sparse food splashing color through the landscape, to the Dracula film in the theatre halting and breaking as a symbol of the main characters’ relationship snapping (Russell, 18). The juxtaposition of language like benevolent indifference (Russell, 4)” mirrors the contrast of the peaceful countryside with an apparent monster, drawing the reader in through what at first seems like a respectable gentleman’s voice reflecting on his peaceful marriage before the narrative twists from a modern love story to the goth roots of the vampire genre. There is only a small hint that the story will take a turn for the worst—the words: “fall,” “raindrops,” “only one or two,” “fall seems contagious” and “close” are folded into an otherwise enticing description: “In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore or ‘first flowering fruit,’ the most succulent lemons; in March the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I’ve been sitting here so long, their fall seems contagious, close as raindrops (Russell, 3).” It’s not evident right away that the fall of the ripe fruit signifies the narrator Clyde’s coming descent into feeding on a human. Russell’s outstanding literary craft shapes the story from beneath the surface, the strong forces of juxtaposition and symbolism woven elegantly.

The main characters are a married vampire couple, Clyde and Magreb, often compared to bats. There are always images of twos, a symbol of the couple. The moon is a muted shade of orange. Twin disks of light burn in the sky and sea (Russell, 6).” Clyde spent his early vampire years caught in the mythology that he must give in to his lust for human blood before being temporarily saved by Magreb’s example of abstinence and the lemons they found to handle cravings. Russell cleverly implies the movement of plot through her unique depictions of landscape, told from Clyde’s point of view, hooking readers with a hint of his psyche. Clyde falls into bloodlust, a form of adultery, in his choice to drink the blood of the young woman Fila, who kicks him the good lemons, to the point of killing her and potentially bringing his marriage to an end. Russell’s description subtly foreshadows Clyde’s downfall from below the radar: “Sometimes a change in weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea (Russell, 5).”

Through the combination of unique imagery bent in engaging ways with an inversion of romance story structure playing with expectation, horror is achieved. The genre shakes expectations and hopes, acknowledging that life isn’t always a happy ending where vampires get their compulsions in control for eternity through community, commitment, spirituality and love. Reading Russell’s collection is like watching Macbeth or Star Wars Three, Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin Skywalker kills a room of children and officially becomes Darth Vader where the audience can’t escape the inevitably of a tragic outcome. After one hundred and thirty years clean with the friendship of his vampire wife, Clyde murders a young girl, facing the possibility of losing his wife and spending eternity alone, never meeting another of his kind. After Magreb walks out of the theatre when the film of two characters they are watching is stuck, after Clyde kills the young woman, he looks for his wife. “‘Magreb?' Is she up here? Has she left me? I will never find another vampire (Russell, 21).’” In reverse order it would be a Twilight style love story—Clyde has trouble controlling himself, kills someone, then learns to master his impulses and value his partner and the will to do good above all compulsions. Something as simple as going in reverse changes the tone, genre and experience of the narrative and leaves us with a truth that creepy selfishness may not change in some beings, even well-dressed elderly ones in tan suits on park benches in what seems at first to be a happy and satisfying marriage.

Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove collection attests to the reality that like the universe exploding out of nothing, horror exists, perhaps innate to the human psyche, perhaps intensified by internalized mythology. The collection continues in this vein with stories like Reeling for the Empire” leaving the reader to wonder where evil emerges from, whether it’s a flying fragment from the damage of World War 2 and millenniums of fallible greed-driven societal constructions, or part of our nature as we read about Japanese girls sold into silk factory work until they morph into the fabric-producing worms from the chemical tea they are given. We ponder societies filled with underlying individual selfishness, no matter how civilized the norms they are clothed in, the uncomfortable, unspoken horror that simply exists, and whether our individual and collective psychological states reinforce it.

Russell is unafraid to taste the sour in life. Though on first glance these tales may seem to exist without purpose beyond entertainment, there’s an underlying philosophical current of what happens when the basest aspects of humans go unchecked, leaving the reader to decide what recourse, if any, can be taken. Where does monstrosity emerge from? What is governing or not governing actions committed in compulsion? What drives the baseness of desire over consequence? To what degree does an inability to overcome negative self-stereotypes attributed by others feed addiction? To what extent are people complicit in narratives rigged against them and how does this change based on power and powerlessness? Is horror what we go along with in the name of greed? Readers are invited to ponder the myriad of psychological forces that surface in the dichotomous behaviors of addiction and compulsion, the separation of the known self from inner narcissism, favoring short-term indulgences over long-term higher wants, and the confusion of whether we are who we say we want to be or the demons we’re told we are by myth.

While the writing is fresh and alluring, stories often end abruptly, leaving readers to deduce answers, craving further clarity, but perhaps that is the point. In a time of flash fiction and short attention spans, we are sent inward to ponder societal constructs and human nature.

The antithesis of the romance experience, Russell’s themes portray the human struggle to transcend the shortcomings of impulsive inner nature in symbolic, succinct prose, leaving readers and filmmakers to imagine the bright lemon grove against sharp black bat wings and a turquoise sea.

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Bio: Cynthia Sharp is the author of Ordinary Light, a first prize winner in the SCWES Book Awards, Rainforest in Russet and The Light Bearers in the Sand Dollar Graviton. Her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction can be found in many literary journals including CV2, Toasted Cheese, untethered and The Pitkin Review. She holds an MFA in creative writing.

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