October 30

Vampires, Scarecrows, and Human Silkworms, Oh My!

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Stories by Karen Russell

Vampires and monsters tend to be predictable. Pale and pretty, driven by bloodlust and romantic yearning, their recent pop-culture ilk have been a bit dull. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a surprising or unusual story of the macabre. Karen Russell makes me feel like I’m meeting all those characters anew and on their own terrain, rather than what we outsiders make for them. Her grandfatherly vampire staves off thirst by sucking Italian lemons, the acid tang numbing his yearning, at least for a little while. Her monsters are captive women transformed into silkworms, spinning thread that reveals the colors of their own emotions. Russell, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a 2012 National Magazine Award winner for fiction, and a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant recipient, also offers two of the most unnerving short stories I’ve read in years.

In “Proving Up,” the common threats faced by homesteaders take on a hellish dimension as they sacrifice everything to gain the title to the plots of land they have hewn and sown and in which they have buried their children. Homesteading families must satisfy a governmental requirement of a window in order to prove ownership of their land. Johannes Zegner takes a pane from an abandoned family homestead littered with signs of hidden trauma, and orders his son Miles to deliver it to their neighbors in time to trick the Inspector – the Window will travel to each house in turn. Miles rides into a landscape made unfamiliar by a sudden storm, loses his way and discovers the lurking danger that stalks each family so stubbornly willing to risk their lives for the land they want so badly to claim. Bucked off his horse, Miles faces the prospect of his own death: “Now I understand: this is a nightmare. [My horse] flies into the white heart of the storm while I pant all raggedy in the drifts with the Window hard against my chest, sucking my frozen thumb. Screaming turns out to be an agility I’ve taken for granted.” This story made me viscerally uncomfortable. I had to keep reading in order to finish it, and then read something else to put some distance between myself and the story before I slept.

But, perhaps the most masterful story of the collection is its last, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” The gritty, seemingly realistic urban tale takes a rural character – a scarecrow – and alters its placement and purpose. A group of bullies discovers a scarecrow strapped to a tree in the corner of the park they claim as their own. The scarecrow has an uncanny resemblance to one of their bullying victims, Eric Mutis, who happens to have disappeared. The narrator, who feels a personal connection to Mutis, cannot stop thinking about the scarecrow and about Eric, and is driven to find out what happened to this disappeared boy and discover the mystery behind this stuffed, dismembered witness, this figure who the narrator cannot seem to escape.

As you carve your pumpkins and hand out your candy tomorrow, consider curling up with Karen Russell, whose stories will disturb you even as she challenges your notions of the monstrous in the way that only the best macabre writers can. I advise you to keep the lights on as you read.