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Review: Karen Russell shows why there’s still life in the short story form

Every so often, in order to fill a few inches of space or post something to a blog, a writer will either declare that the short story is in the midst of a renaissance or that the “short story renaissance” is hollow hype and one more instance of literary wishful thinking in the triumphant landscape of electronic media. Meanwhile, writers keep writing short stories, and somebody, somewhere, keeps reading them. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But as always, there are atoms of truth in these viewpoints. Devotees of short stories and its ADD cousin flash fiction make the case that in our society of information overload, short forms have an advantage in that they’re, well, short. Alas, those with short-attention spans have no desire to read anything longer than 140 characters — they’re the folks glued to TV shows, movies, video games. Most true readers of contemporary fiction want precisely the opposite: big, fat books (or, better yet, a series of big fat books) that create immersive worlds that the reader can enter and exit at will. When it comes to reading, especially in the realm of popular and genre fiction, the novel is still king.

Which means that the literary short story writers who do gain attention these days follow a couple of paths: sardonic, ironic chronicles of contemporary lost souls (Wells Tower, Sam Lipsyte) or magical realist/genre-mining stories that range over wide ranges of time and space (Jim Shepard, Karen Russell). If you’re really good, you’re George Saunders and manage to do both.

The aforementioned Karen Russell isn’t quite George Saunders, but she is a spookily talented young storyteller — with the emphasis perhaps on storyteller over short story writer. Her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, preceded her first novel Swamplandia! — a rarity when young fiction writers who favor short stories are often forced to publish a novel before they can even think about getting a collection of stories published. And Swamplandia!, a charmingly melodramatic and satirical epic about a Florida amusement park, was famously a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize last year, when no prize for fiction was given out (and almost winning a Pulitzer might actually have more cred than winning one).

As enjoyable as Swamplandia! is, Russell’s second collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is a hit-and-miss affair that nonetheless is stuffed with pure storytelling pleasure — a voice that clearly isn’t filled with the deeply ironic angst and emotional attenuation that passes for a great deal of short fiction these days. Russell is perched, lightly, intelligently, and not always effortlessly, on the myriad branches of the fantasy and horror genres in these stories — 30 years ago, most of them would have been published by science fiction publishers like DAW or Del Rey instead of Knopf. The breakout of so much good short fantasy fiction from the ghettos of genre, and the respect accorded to it by traditional literary publishing, is one sign of the health of the contemporary short story, in part because there are any number of fantasy, horror and science fiction ideas that cannot bear the weight of the novel (which is why those genres have so long been robust with first-rate short fiction).

At her best, Russell puts forth some lovely twists on fantasy conventions, including the title story. Vampires, turned into sex toys and matinee idols, distressingly cast fewer and fewer reflections in the culture; here, Russell’s take on them gives them back some of their horrifying power while nonetheless retaining their high romantic aspects. She’s less sure-footed in “Reeling for the Empire,” which, despite its creepy conceit (young 19th-century Japanese women imprisoned and turned into mutant silkworms) and strong characterization, reads a little too much like a second-tier story in an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Its the sort of revenge story whose threads are visible so early on that only Russell’s narrative skill kept me from skipping ahead to the next tale. “The New Veterans” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” are far more effective, injecting the provisionally supernatural (a living tattoo, a boy who turns into a scarecrow) into currents of contemporary history and culture (the Afghan war, bullying). Even the collection’s least fantastic tale, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” contains an element of the irreal in its deftly tender portrait of the magical thinking that’s specific to adolescence. Two satires, “The Barn at the End of Our Term” and “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgaiting,” split the difference — the former is a funny, poignant precis on where presidents go when they die, while the latter is the sort of forgettable one-joke piece you find in The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” page.

The true standout is the collection’s fourth story, which here is given the lackluster title “Proving Up,” but which bore the mysterious and evocative title “The Hox River Window” when it appeared in Zoetrope All-Story. It won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Fiction, and deservedly so — it’s a masterly little gem of horror that simultaneously mines that darkest of mines in our national culture known as The American Dream. To say more would be a disservice, but Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is worth picking up for this story alone. Were it a novel, it would fall apart, and yet it contains a world as deep and rich as any novel. This alone is the reason why short stories go on, declarations as to their health or relevance be damned — for some ideas, they are simply the only marriage of form and content that allows them to sally forth at all.

VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE, Karen Russell, Knopf, 256 pages