The Short Version: Vampires who slake their thirst with lemons instead of blood, a barn where former Presidents are reincarnated as horses, Japanese girls who are turned into silkworms for the good of production… Karen Russell steps out of the Floridian swamps and presents eight new stories that expand her fantastic world – and her talents as a writer.
The Review: The most striking thing, right off the bat, about this collection is how mature it feels. How much it feels like we’re seeing the growth of a writer right in front of our eyes. This is a beautiful thing to witness and nothing about this collection dissuades me from the belief that Karen Russell is a) the new Ray Bradbury and b) my short story spirit animal. It contains some marvelous work. This is not to say that it is without flaws but rather to say that the flaws feel quite often like a writer pushing her limits, trying to explore new things. And the other stories, as a result, are better for it.
Gone are the Floridian tales of swamp wonder – and, truthfully, this is the clearest and best sign of Russell’s development. I love the murky mythos she’s created down there but it is a joy to see her branch out and turn her talents towards other parts of the world. The title story in this collection, for example, feels as sun-baked as she describes Clyde, the male vampire of the story. In fewer than 20 pages, she manages to evoke the feel of provincial Italy as well if not better than Jess Walter managed in the entirety of Beautiful Ruins. And the story is suffused, as they almost always are, with a beautiful melancholy – the idea that vampires are essentially just like us, but with teeth and the thirst, made them tragic and fragile characters, subverting the entire mythos without losing its power. “You small mortals don’t realize the power of your stories”, he thinks one Halloween – and that line just nailed me right between the eyes.
There’s a little more humor in some of these stories than I expected – “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”, for example, is pretty much just straight-up list-humor (although the last paragraph infuses the whole story with a quiet contemplation, a sudden cut-to:wide-shot where all you hear is silence). And “The Barn at the End of our Term” provides exactly the sort of wacky invention you’d expect if someone described a short story as “Rutherford B. Hayes and several other Presidents are reincarnated as horses on some farm in the middle of the country.” But even then, no story is any one single ‘genre’ – they all end up pulling from different threads to spin together a single unified tapestry. And yes, I make that reference knowingly, what with the silk-spinning story.
I would like to say that there was one story that didn’t work for me before singling out one more that really did. “The New Veterans” was, for me, a failed attempt. It’s an Iraq/PTSD sort of story and while I like the concept hypothetically, I don’t think it succeeds here: a massage therapist discovers that she can manipulate a soldier’s tattoo in order to change his life, change what happened to him during the war that’s causing him all of this stress. It’s definitely something that provides a great jumping-off point, story-wise, but the story just never grabbed me. Perhaps its an overload of Iraq stories, in general, in life. Perhaps it is still, for the most part, too soon for most writers to write Iraq stories without at least brushing our national collective exhaustion. But even as Russell, in this story, took the Bradbury analogy to the level of homage (there’s definitely a hat-tip to “The Illustrated Man”, at least in my mind), she also turned in a story that felt too long and never quite engaged me the way the others did.
The story, then, that engaged me most actually called to mind another author of fantastic / speculative fiction: Stephen King. “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” felt like Russell had tapped into that same etherial vein of adolescence that King knows so well – pulling out a story that had the hallmarks of a King tale but also the distinctive stamp that said “no, this is my own.” I won’t spoil too much of the story because it had me riveted to the page – but it deals with a young boy, confusion about romance and life, and a single fantastic/strange event that only he seems to notice. It felt so rich, so full, that I left the story feeling as though I’d just supped on a full novel – the characters, the background, even the setting were so well-described and fully-formed that I could derive that larger pleasure from the shorter form. It is an exceptional story, one of the absolute best I’ve ever read.
Rating: 4 out of 5. With expansion/experimentation comes some inevitable reach-exceeds-grasp moments – and there are definitely a few moments in this collection that make the stories not fail but just not quite soar to such heights as Ms. Russell’s first collection achieved. But I also am so thrilled by the playground of imagination that any Karen Russell story – short or long – provides for a reader and fans will not be disappointed. Nor will, I should say, readers who were disappointed by Ms. Russell’s earlier work(s): this is an opportunity to try again, you readers – I hope you’ll indulge, as I think you’ll be rewarded.