Vampires in the Lemon Grove
by Karen Russell
Knopf

Karen Russell is weird. And I mean that as a compliment.

The author of Swamplandia–a coming of age story with a touch of the fantastic–returned last month with a short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Ms. Russell might well be the literary love child of Stephen King and Alice Hoffman. Her stories are both whimsical and creepy, her language by turns blunt and lyrical. At every story’s beginning and end, I wondered anew, “How in the world did she come up with that?”

But Ms. Russell doesn’t see the world as we do, or at least she makes all sorts of time/space allowances. Thus we have a pair of vampires subsisting on lemons: “bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt”; a group of innocent girls turned into silkworms; a determined set of fans risking their lives to cheer for their hopelessly outmatched team in the Arctic; a massage therapist with the ability to heal more than simple aches. While a few of the stories venture into Poe territory–“Proving Up” pits a group of Nebraska homesteaders against an unknown dark force–many of them suggest the possibility of redemption, even when the human characters find themselves irrevocably and sometimes physically altered.

My favorite story concerned a group of dead presidents reincarnated as horses sharing a stable  on a farm in an unnamed year. Initially, the new arrivals, who appear in no obvious chronological order, aren’t certain whether they’re in heaven or someplace else. But eventually, they revert to type, being essentially political animals. They alternate between grandstanding and scheming about returning to service–for the benefit of a Union that obviously needs them, naturally. All except the gray horse who knows himself as Rutherford Hayes and dreams of reuniting with his beloved wife Lucy and retiring to, well, greener pastures.

In all the stories, the protagonists have something to prove and a shot at redemption or meaning in their lives. It’s a surprisingly sweet layer. That such a hopeful theme should run through these quirky, disturbing, and mesmerizing tales is an added bonus.