“He’s Not Actually From Europe!”: Karen Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”

vampires in the lemon grove

This book, not unlike my copy of “Welcome to Night Vale,” is one that sat on my bookshelf for a while before I eventually ended up reading it.

I bought it on a trip to Barnes & Noble in the early fall of last year on a whim because it was on sale, and I’m a sucker for sales and books that claim to be about vampires (obviously). That said, I didn’t start reading it until really recently.

“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is a collection of short stories, most of them of a supernatural nature, and some of them emotionally upsetting. There was at least one story in the book that bored me enough that I skipped it, which is luckily a thing you can do when you’re reading a book of short stories and not a novel, but I always wonder if maybe I should just power through the displeasure of reading that one uninteresting story before making the decision that I don’t have time to spend reading things that I don’t like.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I don’t like the fact that my copy has deckle edges that make it look less like it’s been on a shelf for a long time and more like it’s been hacked at by someone who doesn’t know how to use one of the cutting machines at a Staples Copy Center. Then again, I hate deckle edges anyway. There are the promised vampires in the first story, though I’m not so sure that they’re vampires (they can stand in the sun and blood doesn’t actually satiate their thirst, and they can age) so much as something else. Other monsters appear, too.

There were a couple stories within “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” that I managed to finish and still don’t remember with any clarity, which is unfortunate. Most of the time, Russell has clean prose and a distinct voice–but that’s an issue when that voice doesn’t change from narrator to narrator. In some cases, it can feel like you’re reading two different stories being told by the same person: which, alright, it is Karen Russell who is actually telling these stories, but when those stories are in first person, you come to expect some kind of differentiation between the narrators.

You don’t always have to pick a favorite story when you read a collection of shorts. You might like (or dislike, or feel indifferent towards) all of them the same. For the majority of my reading, that was how I felt about the stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” I liked “Reeling for the Empire” better than “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach,” and I didn’t feel anything for “Proving Up.”

And then the last story–“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”–happened. I would recommend this book if only so everybody could read that one story. This is a scary story. It is good and it made me uncomfortable in exactly all the right ways. You never want to feel sympathy for bullies but it can be hard not to when that’s who the protagonist of a story is. He’s a bully. He admits it. He talks about how he and his friends would beat up Eric Mutis, a kid who is treated even by school faculty and administration as a huge loser. He tries to set things right at the end of the story (and those scenarios always give me some remembrance of the show “My Name is Earl,” for whatever reason), but you don’t know if he actually succeeds. It’s a great story. You can feel the city in which these boys live and Russell gives great images of the park in which they hang out.

The majority of the stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” are ones that I could take or leave. They didn’t strike any major chords, and while the writing is good, it doesn’t always keep me engaged. The stories that do stick out include: “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” “Reeling for the Empire,” and “The Barn at the End of Our Term.” I would probably recommend borrowing it from the library before making a purchase, unless you’re making the purchase based on the book jacket, in which case, I understand because I kind of did the same thing.

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Author: jillboger

Part time writer. Editor-in-Chief for the Bridge volume 13, former EIC for The Odyssey at BSU. My glasses protect my secret identity.

4 thoughts on ““He’s Not Actually From Europe!”: Karen Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove””

  1. I was really pleased to see this review! I was wondering about buying this one but I think now I’ll check the library instead. I quite liked the author’s first (I think?) short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, but had a not so great experience with her novel Swamplandia (In that I enjoyed the majority of the novel but a disturbing event near the end of the book soured the entire experience for me). It does have a rather fantastic cover though doesn’t it? Shame the interior is less marvelous.

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    1. To be honest, if it hadn’t been on sale, I don’t think I would have bought it. I haven’t read anything else by her, and I’m not really sure I will unless it’s something that I don’t have to pay money for.

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