Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell


Vampires in the Lemon Grove book cover

We are Here:  Done!

Spoilers?     Perhaps


I often questioned whether I should be reading these stories right before bed…and yet I was compelled to turn the pages until I drifted to sleep, taking my chances with my unconscious. The collection contains disparate genres that all do the same work to varying degrees. That is, they are mildly to deeply unsettling.

Each of these eight tales are horrific in their own ways, in a quiet, creeping way that leaves you unsettled and musing over their implications and logic long after they close. Russel is a mixologist, blending heady cocktails of realism and strangeness. Each story creates rich worlds, providing an opening to the fantastic that necessarily lets in the sinister.

I read this for a book club, and other members read deeper into some of the stories, looking for patterns and commentaries and messages. At first I was resistant to reading into the stories; I had enjoyed letting them rest on the surface of my consciousness. To read into them analytically would destroy some of the effect they’d had.

But once I considered the stories from this angle, I saw the labor-revolution arc of “Reeling for the Empire” and the futility-of-it-all satire in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” (which was the hardest for me to get through, as I expected to like it much more that I did). It was fun to comb through the stories for patterns and deeper meanings as a group with wildly differing tastes. Since a few people hadn’t made it through the entire collection, we explained some of the plots to one another, discovering interpretations we hadn’t considered, and piquing the interest of those who hadn’t had a chance to finish. In short, I can advocate reading this alone and as part of a discussion group, if that’s your bag.

Often nontraditional in structure, many of the stories ended ambiguously, and not where I expected them to. I liked this, almost because I didn’t like it. The unfamiliar endings fit with the unfamiliar genres and sideways takes on tropes and narratives. I’m not a lover of horror or being scared, but these stories were mild in those respects while still managing to challenge me to contain my discomfort and to figure out what was going on. At times, I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and I was okay with that. Russell makes you feel good about not knowing.


“Proving Up” was set in a world familiar to anyone obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I was all in on that one. Homesteading, dugout sod houses, blizzards–bring it on! Perhaps one of the most mysterious in the collection, dripping with visceral desolation and decay, it felt at the same time familiar because of my earlier immersion into northern plains farming in the late 1800’s.

The boys of “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” are little shits and that story more than any of these had me aching to set things right.

While the title story left me lukewarm, it was “Reeling” that really drew me in to the collection, making me a willing voyeur to the monstrous plight of its characters.

“The Barn at the End of Our Term” was the story that most appealed to my sensibilities. Presidents reincarnated as horses, jockeying to be in charge of the clover patch, and searching for their spouses in sheep? More, please.

Why is this book better than people?

The stories in this book will remind you how terrible some people can be, which will make you glad that you are only forced to confront them on the page (or your nightmares), and not in real life. The stories don’t force you to interpret them, as some people might insist you do. Rather, they allow you to let them seep into your soul, asking nothing of you but that you remain receptive.


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