A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Karen Russell is a North American novelist and short storyist whose two published collections – St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006), and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013) – and her novel, Swamplandia (2011), have brought her nominations for armfuls of awards, as well as a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for 2013. I’ve got Swamplandia on my Christmas list now, as I have both short story collections and think them stunning. She writes the kind of fiction that is rightfully described as ‘weird’, and also ‘loving’, ‘joyous’, ‘bizarre’, ‘unexpected’, and ‘life-affirming no matter what is trying to eat you’. (We published a review of St Lucy’s Home some years ago.)
As the titles suggest, she deals cheerfully and openly with strangeness and fantastical situations, but although her creative territory is the rightful domain of horror novelists, her stories are never sensational for the sake of it, nor does she try to make you sick or scared. She wants you to be alert, certainly, because if you and your sister are alone in the swamp cabin for the summer, with alligator feeding duty every day, you need to keep an eye out during the times that your sister is possessed by one of her many demon boyfriends. This happens a lot in ‘Ava Wrestles the Alligator’, and Ava is the kind of tough and resourceful eight-year old who can cope with this unnerving and sweaty situation.
Isolation is central to most of these stories, but it’s not an unhappy or upsetting isolation, just something that the characters get along with because that’s all they know and all that they can work with. Readers on the outside looking in will be initially appalled by the situations. Three former US presidents unexpectedly meet again, reincarnated as horses. Two boys go diving at night off the Florida Keys, looking for their drowned sister who fell out of a giant crab shell two years earlier, and see marine ghosts through their haunted snorkelling goggles. A boy is sent off on horseback to reclaim the window passed around the community to enable pioneers to prove their homesteading claims, but he meets someone he knows on the way, who has something to do with his dead sisters. Three children bond every year at summer camp, because it’s a camp for somnambulists, incubi, sleep apneics, gnashers and other night-haunted teenagers beset by sleeping disorders. It’s when the camp sheep start getting killed that they realise something has to be done. Two vampires set up home in a lemon grove to see if they can keep off the human juice by sucking lemons. A choir of boys is flown up to the top of a snowfield every year to sing the annual avalanche into being. A pioneering family heading West has their wagon drawn by the father of the family because he’s a retired Minotaur. These fantastical situations, though certainly unusual, are suffused with tenderness and friendship, and Russell has an appealing matter-of-factness in dealing with their inherent weirdness that many other writers could not muster so subtly or generously.
I first came across Karen Russell on a podcast, when she was reading aloud from ‘Proving up’ in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Blessed is the author whose voice tells the story that she wrote so perfectly that you have to stop what you’re doing to listen. It’s also not possible to glance idly across a page, and then look away: you HAVE to keep reading to find out what on earth is going on. Try these first lines and see how you get on.
‘Perhaps it is odd to have rules for tailgating when the Food Chain Games themselves are a lawless bloodbath.’ (‘Dougbert Shackleton Rules for Antarctic Tailgating’)
‘Several of us claim to have been the daughters of samurai, but of course there is no way for anyone to verify that now’. (‘Reeling for the Empire’)
‘My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t see any ghosts.’ (‘Haunting Olivia’)
‘At first our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy.’ (‘St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves’, with an epigraph from The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock)
‘The scarecrow that we found lashed to the pin oak in Friendship Park, New Jersey, was thousands of miles away from the yellow atolls of corn where you might expect to find a farmer’s doll’. (‘The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis’)
Karen Russell, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves (2006, ISBN 978-0-099-50732-1), and Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013, ISBN 978-0-09957-896-3)
Kate reads an awful lot of weird fiction and vintage sf – katemacdonald.net