Vampires In The Lemon Grove & Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating by Karen Russell

"In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I've been sitting here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops."

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of Karen Russell’s short stories published between 2007 and 2013. Karen is a fiction writer who crafts compelling plot lines that bridge multiple genres together, blending opposing styles and conventions into a singular cohesive piece.

Karen experiments with how we perceive various genres and manipulates their traditional structure. She also writes with an exaggerated tone that pulls the audience into her world and creates a vivid landscape for characters to develop and scenes to unfold.


The short story, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, originally published in 2007 and featured in three other publications, Karen introduces a lonely vampire who rests within an Italian lemon grove. Alert of his thirst, lemons entices the vampire during the day and satisfies his fangs at night.

The protagonist, Clyde, is a vampire and Karen writes of the Dracula-inspired figure in a manner absent of the expected dark mood with a dangerous, eerie tone. The story intertwines a romantic theme, revealing a love story between Clyde and a female vampire, Magreb. Though, the romance is vulnerable and doesn’t fully involve a happy fantastical ending.

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"We lift the lemons and swing them to our faces. We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin, and emit a long, united hiss: Aaah!"
“That cluster of years was a very confusing period. Mostly I felt grateful, aboveground feelings. I was in love. For a vampire, my life was very normal...I went on long bicycle rides with Magreb. We visited botanical gardens and rowed in boats. In a short time, my face had gone from lithium white to the color of milky coffee. Yet sometimes, especially at high noon, I’d study Magreb’s face with a hot, illogical hatred, each pore opening up to swallow me. You’ve ruined my life, I’d think.” 

Karen swaps lust for blood with lemons. Clyde is an emotional creature and readers easily enter his mind and comprehend his capabilities of love and compassion.

The stylistic language and word choice further invites the reader forward and into the fictionalized world. The descriptive lines embolden the scene by exaggerating the compulsion of thirst, along with the mention of color further accentuating the protagonist’s interactions with the world.

“Magreb and I have tried everything -- fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties.”
“I pushed up and felt the wood give away. Light exploded through the cellar. My pupils shrank to dots. Outside, the whole world was on fire. Mute explosions rocked the scrubby forest, motes of light burning like silent rockets. The sun fell through the eucalyptus and Australian pines in bright red bars.”

The cleverness of refusing to separate fictional genres into a single narrative continues throughout Karen Russell’s short story collection. Her piece titled, Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating follows a similar pattern.

Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating appears to take a simple form. The first person narrative combined with a list-like structure utilizes fantasy with comedic undertones.

“Perhaps it is odd to have rules for tailgating when the Food Chain Games themselves are a lawless bloodbath. And that is what a lot of fans love about the games: no rules, no refs, no box seats, and no hot pretzels -- not below the Ross Ice Shelf!” 

The sixth short story in Karen Russell’s collection was inspired by tailgating at sporting events. She fictionalized the event and placed the party in the middle of Antarctica, an unlikely location which adds to the unusuality of this story. Two teams, Team Krill and Team Whale, are competing in the Food Chain Games. The speaker of the tale is Dougbert who discusses the rules and concept for tailgating along with the structure of Food Chain Games.

Russell succeeds in blending fantasy, comedy, and magical realism. The fantasy landscape with fantasized qualities work well with the humorous tone. In turn, the whimsical humor helps to guide the story and reflect the fictional mood. Humor and comedic one-liners are what helps to move the narrative forward and keeps the reader hooked in a story that is a play-by-play, where chronological order can not be twisted and experimented with.


In one instance, humor effectively assists in exaggerating the preparation a participant must take prior to the games beginning. 

“So: how to get ready for the big game? Say farewell to your loved ones. Notarize your will. Transer what money you’ve got into a trust for the kids. You’ll probably want to put on some weight for the ride down to the ice caves; a beer gut has made the difference between life and death at the blue bottom of the world. Eat a lot at Shoney’s and Big Boy and say your prayers. Take an eight-month leave of absence, minimum, from your office job. Kill your plants, release your cat, stop your mail.”
“Tip: this water will taste a little like movie popcorn unless you doctor it with Tang or Crystal Light lemonade.” 

In Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, she works with various genres and literary styles, many times combining the conventions of several in a single narrative. Russell proves the similarities that can be found when writing within more than one genre, such as horror and romance, as well as fantasy and comedy. In other examples of her short stories, she is no stranger to utilizing the parameters of magical realism.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a compilation of eight short stories that push the literary boundaries in plot and preconceived beliefs about what a particular genre can do and how it can perform on the page. 


*Feature photo from Tin House

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