In one of the eight stories in Karen Russell's new collection, a group of dead presidents has been reincarnated as horses. Rutherford B. Hayes, a skewbald pinto, frantically licks the palm of a girl in a secret code that he's worked out, revealing his true identity and asking her to alert the authorities. "Ha-ha!" the girl laughs. "That tickles."
I know, you're probably thinking: "Dead presidents reincarnated as horses? Oh, come on, Meg, that sounds like the plot of so many short stories."
I'm kidding, of course. I'm well aware that it sounds like the plot of no other short story on earth, because Russell's work is original. "Original" is a word that gets applied to books as frequently as a 20-percent-off sticker at Barnes & Noble, but in this case it's accurate. I admired the access that she seems to have to the dense and dreamy material that lies deep inside the brain. I found myself wondering whether more writers, given the same access, would let themselves write so wildly and freely. I hope they would; I know I'd like to.
Consider the title story, in which two vampires have installed themselves in a lemon grove in Italy. They've found that burying their fangs in lemons offers a brief release, or at least a distraction, from the constant, eternal hum of their blood lust (the narrator accomplishes this by disguising himself as a harmless old Italian nonno). But that itch, that ache, won't go away, and the craving starts to resemble an existential longing.
The story could easily have had another title, borrowed from Nathan Englander's famous collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Much more like Englander than, say, Stephenie Meyer, who started this current literary vampire trend that just won't die, Russell is highly invested in language. Her writing is linguistically complex and witty, not to mention dense with ideas, weird, and often profound.
Those qualities inform all the stories in this volume, but the most observable strand running through them is Russell's interest in transformation. Actually, "interest" is maybe too weak a word. She seems to be hammering out her preoccupation with the idea that we aren't securely fixed in space and time, but that we might just change at any moment, even against our will. And, worse, we might change into something disgusting, or violent, or powerless, or shameful.
In the story "Reeling for the Empire," girls who've been imprisoned in a silk factory start to turn into silkworms. And in the dead presidents story, "The Barn at the End of Our Term," even the most establishy establishment figures aren't safe. The poor vampires of the title story are forced to change and adapt over time to survive. In their monstrousness is a kind of terrible helplessness, and in this, Russell, like many writers, owes a debt to Mary Shelley.
The transformation is subtler in my favorite story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis." It's about a group of boys who, owing to the requirements of masculinity and a cruel culture, become predators. Their prey? The eponymous Eric Mutis, wearer of Hoops sneakers. "At school, we made a point of stealing Hoops from any kid stupid enough to wear them — Hoops were imitation Nikes, glittered with an insulting ersatz gold, and just the sight of a pair used to enrage me. The H logo was a flamboyant way to announce to your class: Hey, I'm poor!"
The narrator and his friends are relentless in their torment of Eric, who is ugly, graceless, charmless and never fights back. But Eric allows himself to become his own kind of monster, to adapt to the unspeakable cruelty at school but also, hinted, at home. And so, when a scarecrow appears, bound to a tree, the boys realize it is in the image of Eric Mutis. Could it even somehow literally be Eric Mutis himself? And if so, what is Russell trying to say?
She's a writer who leaves a wide berth for ambiguity in all her work, so it's not always easy to tell. But what's obvious is that the atmosphere created here is one of tension and even, eventually, well-earned fear.
From time to time, the combination of supernatural and lyrical makes it read a little bit like Ray Bradbury with a creative writing degree. But while Bradbury was a master of suspense and surprise, he tended to have easily understandable intentions. Russell doesn't. Just when you think you know exactly what she's thinking, she goes somewhere deeper and more unusual. In Russell's world, horses in a barn were once leaders of the free world; vampires seek solace in citrus fruit; and scarecrows can be people. I left this book excited by the transformations that take place not only in a great book, but also in its reader. I'm not a monster — at least, not yet — but I'm a fan.
Meg Wolitzer's upcoming book is called The Interestings.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Karen Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia," made a splash when it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Russell's latest book is a collection of short stories called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Meg Wolitzer has this review.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: Karen Russell's writing is original. I know, you're thinking, oh, come on, Meg. Calling a writer original is like saying a book was 20 percent off at Barnes and Noble. But in this case, it's true.
In one story, a group of dead presidents are reincarnated as horses. One of them tries to talk to a girl by licking her palm in a secret code. He is Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the 19th president of the United States of America, he says. She should alert the local officials. But the girl just laughs. That tickles.
This is why I love Karen Russell. All the stories are premised on these really bizarre, complex ideas. It makes you wonder if other writers out there have this kind of imagination and they don't tap into it because they're afraid no one will know what they're talking about. Maybe she's just the only one who is brave enough not to worry about that.
In another story, two vampires are living in a lemon grove in Italy. They've realized that if they bite lemons, they get a little relief from their constant bloodlust, but it never really goes away. It's an existential thing.
Another theme that keeps coming up in this collection is the idea of transformation. People could change at any minute, and worse, they - or maybe we - could become disgusting or violent or embarrassing.
One story is called "Reeling for the Empire." It's about these girls who are trapped in a silk factory, and they start to turn into the silkworms. The "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" have to adapt over time in order to survive. In "The Barn at the End of Our Term" - which is the one about the dead presidents - even the most establish-y establishment figures aren't safe. They all have this kind of terrible helplessness.
And then there's my favorite story: "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis." It also has a transformation, but it's more subtle. It's about a group of boys who are bullies. Their prey is Eric Mutis, and the narrator explains that they beat him up in part because of his sneakers.
At school, we made a point of stealing Hoops from any kid stupid enough to wear them. Hoops were imitation Nikes, he says. The H logo was a flamboyant way to announce to your class: Hey, I'm poor. He disappears, and no one notices. Then the boys find a scarecrow tied to a tree, and they realize it looks just like Eric Mutis. But could it literally be him?
Karen Russell leaves a lot of ambiguity in her work, and it's not always easy to tell what the facts are. But what's clear in this story is the atmosphere: The boys are terrified, and the reader is, too, and that's the product of a skillful writer. In Karen Russell's collection, horses are presidents, vampires suck lemons and scarecrows are people. I finished it feeling transformed myself. I'm not a monster - at least not yet. But after reading this collection, I'm a fan.
SIEGEL: The short story collection is called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," written by Karen Russell. Her newest fan is reviewer Meg Wolitzer. Wolitzer's next novel, out soon, is called "The Interestings." And for our younger listeners who love to read, a Backseat Bookclub reminder: Keep reading "Okay for Now," by Gary Schmidt, and then send in your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and stay tuned for our conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.