As a writer, having your work established and esteemed by critics (especially while you’re still alive) is a pinnacle achievement. To reach this point when you’re barely 30 years old — and be a finalist for a Pulitzer to boot — sounds like nothing but an extravagant dream. Yet, in the case of writer Karen Russell, it’s her reality.
Russell is primarily a short-story writer, and she’s had work featured in prominent publications like “The Best American Short Stories,” The New Yorker and “The Oxford American.” In 2006, at 25 years old, she began gaining recognition after publishing her debut short story collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which centers on stories of often parentless children struggling to find their sense of self as they navigate the world. Due to her work in “St. Lucy’s,” Russell received the Bard Fiction Prize, as well as was named a National Book Award “5 Under 35” young writer honoree.
Russell went on to release her debut novel, “Swamplandia!,” in 2011, which was inspired by her earlier short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” In the short story turned novel, 13-year-old Ava and her family run an alligator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, but after the loss of Ava’s mother, everything begins to fall apart. “Swamplandia!” was named one of New York Times Book Review’s Best Ten Books of the Year, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
In the wake of this torrential success, Russell published another short story collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” in 2013. Like her previous works, “Vampires” feeds on the uncanny, chewing up all that is horrific and normal to spit out an amalgamation of the familiar and the strange. Readers are left with dark reminders of what humans can become, told in gloomy comedic fashion, often through the stories of awkward adolescents.
Russell accomplishes this, of course, without sacrificing an ounce of her ingenious imagination. “Vampires” includes wild tales of an ancient vampire couple who have come to rely on lemons to quench their thirst for blood, former U.S. presidents waking from death to find themselves reincarnated as horses and a massage therapist who can manipulate the past through the tattoos of a client.
The two most striking stories, however, were undoubtedly “Reeling for the Empire” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” These two chilled me to the bone, and, by the looks of the internet, I am not alone. Many have expressed their horror after reading the fictional accounts of Kitsune and Larry Rubio for what the characters show about how monstrous — yet still within reach of redemption — humans can be.
In “Reeling for the Empire,” Russell writes in the setting of feudal Japan, where young women are sold by their families into slavery at a silk factory. A recruitment agent forces the women to drink tea that slowly transforms them into a sort of anthropomorphic silkworm designed to produce more silk than ever before. The main character, Kitsune, is haunted by the fact that she naively sold herself into slavery rather than being betrayed and sold by family members. She feels helpless and enraged at her loss of agency, and the thread pooling inside her stomach begins turning black at the thought of it.
After a factory worker dies as an act of rebellion, Kitsune and the other workers are inspired to make a stand and reclaim their voice, collectively rebelling against the agent and spinning cocoons for themselves in the hopes that they will sprout wings and fly away. Kitsune and the other factory workers’ story serves as a chilling reminder to the power everyone has to resist oppression, so long as everyone bands together and is not afraid.
Such is the case in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” The main character, Larry Rubio, is one of four members of a middle school gang of bullies known as Camp Dark. These boys, united in their barely pubescent, brooding rage, make life miserable for the other youths at their school.
One child in particular, Eric Mutis, becomes a favorite for their group to bully due to his glassy, numb reaction to their abuse. After going too far in attempting to get a rise out of him, Eric Mutis vanishes from school, and only days later, the gang stumbles upon a scarecrow, lashed to a tree at their favorite meeting spot, bearing an eerie resemblance to the mysteriously absent Mutis.
The boys, Larry in particular, grow strangely fascinated with and frightened by the scarecrow, which slowly gets dismembered — by what, Larry doesn’t know. As he is haunted by the memory of Eric Mutis and his kindness in the face of Camp Dark’s abuse, Larry finds himself seeking to make reparation for their wrongs, even if that means breaking from Camp Dark’s status quo.
In both “Reeling for the Empire” and “Eric Mutis,” Russell uses the uncanny nature of human silkworms and a bullied boy’s effigy to stir the characters into breaking from their established lives to make wrongs right, whether that’s by toppling oppression or restoring dignity.
This theme — of humans pushing against norms to either fix cracks in their human nature or expose them — threads throughout “Vampires,” her previous works and will undoubtedly appear in her forthcoming short story collection, “Orange World and Other Stories.”
Russell’s brilliant exposition of that idea sets her glowingly apart from other short story writers in the past 10 years, and will work to her advantage for decades to come.