Symbolic entities in 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove'
Some fantasy stories are for pure entertainment and others entertain with the hope of relaying a moral or lesson—such as Aesop’s Fables or (as many have defended) fairy tales. Karen Russell’s collection of short stories Vampires in the Lemon Grove can be categorized as a fable or fairy tale in this sense as each fantasy story can be interpreted as having a moral. In most of these stories the fantasy element is either a supernatural creature or non-human entity and these creatures are used as a device to deliver the story’s lesson. In the stories “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” “Reeling for the Empire,” “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” creatures and/or non-human entities are—with a focus on transformation and acceptance—used to deliver various underlying themes and meanings. Whether the characters accept the change or transformation in their lives influences the lessons they (do or don’t) learn.
In the short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” centuries old vampire Clyde has capitulated to his old age and feels settled in the lemon grove in Italy where he and his vampire wife Magreb have been living for years. He also no longer feels confident transforming into a bat and flying. Yet Magreb, the only other vampire Clyde has ever met, yearns to travel and as a bat does daring moves that makes Clyde nervous. Symbolically, Clyde portrays vulnerability and a lack of self-confidence. “I can’t shudder myself out of this old man’s body. I can’t fly anymore.” (Russell 2013) On the other hand, Magreb embodies the person who stays young at heart. She portrays desire and growth. Together the vampire couple showcases a lesson in how people grow apart. Magreb has accepted her transformation from human to vampire and grows with that acceptance. Yet Clyde clings to old ways and ideas and is left behind and alone.
“Reeling for the Empire” tells the story of Kitsune, a young woman in Japan during the Mejii Empire, who is held captive in a silk factory. Kitsune and other captive girls drank a potion which transformed them into human silkworms. All the girls are depressed and weary, but Kitsune especially as she is the only one who signed her own contract and willingly drank the potion. She feels regret and guilt as she shapeshifts into a strange girl-silkworm creature. At first, Kitsune meekly acknowledges her fate until another girl sacrifices herself as a symbol of self-determination. Her death causes Kitsune to wholly accept her transformation. “...swiftly the others discover that they, too, can change their thread from within, drawing strength from the colors and seasons of their memories.” (Russell 2013) She accepts her fate, but this time instead of a monster she is ashamed of, the silkworm, she becomes the creature that frees her, the moth. The story’s themes are portrayed by the two separate non-human forms of Kitsune. Kitsune’s silkworm transformation symbolizes regret, exile, shame, and guilt. While Kitsune’s moth transformation represents freedom, hope, and strength.
In “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” former-president Rutherford Birchard Hayes and ten other former presidents have been reincarnated into fully grown horses and live in a barn secluded from the rest of the world. Most of the horse-presidents are concerned with gaining political power within their new rural environment. But Hayes is more concerned with finding where his wife Lucy has gone and eventually believes she has been reincarnated into a sheep. After the sheep is proven to be just a sheep, Hayes moves on from that last part of his humanity and accepts his horse form. “His tail is still attached to him at the root. But Hayes isn’t trying to outrun his horse tail anymore.” (Russell 2013) The other ten presidents and Hayes portray two versions of afterlife mentality: 1) stuck in the ideals that dominated the person while alive and 2) a focus on acceptance and moving on. This is similar to the moth girls in “Reeling for the Empire” in which the characters can choose to brood over what they use to be or accept their new forms and gain freedom from it.
“The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is a tale of guilt and conscience. When a bullied boy, Eric Mutis, goes missing his bullies find an Eric-like scarecrow hanging from a tree in the park. The broken, frail doll causes bully Larry Rubio to feel guilt and shame for his violent actions against Eric. As the scarecrow begins to lose its limbs to some unknown force, Larry’s guilt builds. Every day he watches the Eric-scarecrow transform into a quartered mutilated body. Before the last remaining body part—the torso—is lost Larry tries to atone for his past misdeeds by bringing the Eric-scarecrow a segregate pet rabbit, resembling the one Eric use to love. He keeps the rabbit and torso safe from the unknown predator. “I wouldn’t let the Attacker, whoever or whatever it was, dismantle the doll of Eric Mutis completely, carry him out of our memories a second time.” (Russell 2013) The transformation of the scarecrow into Eric’s corpse represents the guilt that Larry cannot hide from but is also the catalyst for Larry to make amends and alleviate his guilt and regret. Accepting that the scarecrow has transformed into Eric, Larry accepts his past deeds and his need for atonement.
These stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are excellent examples of modern-day fairy tales and fables with their use of creatures and non-human entities to showcase a lesson or moral. How each of the characters deal with their new lives, afterlives, or new forms is a metaphor for how people accept and deal with change. Whether it is silkworm-women, a mutilated scarecrow-boy, horse-presidents, or forever-thirsty vampires, these figures through the devices of transformation and acceptance help to discuss and explore themes of guilt, redemption, compassion, vulnerability, and growth.
Russell, Karen. (2013). Vampires in the Lemon Grove. [Kindle Fire]. eISBN: 978-0-307-96108-2