There has been a remarkable resurgence in the popularity of short stories in recent years, led by the work of some highly skillful and inventive writers. Last year, Junot Díaz’s “This Is How You Lose Her” was nominated for a National Book Award; George Saunders has garnered much deserved attention for his latest collection, “Tenth of December.” And now Karen Russell, author of last year’s Pulitzer-prize finalist novel, “Swamplandia!,” and acclaimed for being on the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list, steps up and delivers her powerful second story collection.
In these eight impressive stories, Russell pulls the rug out on our imagination, creating perplexing, surreal scenarios that bump into the common reality that most of us take for granted. The title story, for example, focuses on an aging couple who live in Italy, but we learn they are vampires and have phobias like the rest of us, including an occupational hazard: a fear of flying.
Everyday situations that transform into something not quite right is what Russell does best, and in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” a young, drifting teenager discovers a cache of material from the future in a seagull nest, which brings unexpected focus to his life. And what seems like normal teenage angst in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” in which a small gang of boys discovers a scarecrow tied to a tree in a city park, turns into a much more serious tale of bullying and psychological revenge.
In “The New Veterans,” a recently returned soldier from the Iraq war is paired with a masseuse who becomes obsessed with a complex narrative tattoo on the veteran’s back. The tattoo immortalizes a decisive day in his war; she seems to have the power to alter the tattoo and, with it, perhaps the soldier’s memory. The most disturbing story, “Reeling for the Empire,” may be an allegory for sexual slavery in which young Japanese women are committed by their fathers to work in a silk factory, yet all silkworms have died from a virus, and in this factory the women drink a mysterious tea that eerily transforms their bodies into spinners of silk.
Not all of these stories are so dark. “The Barn at the End of Our Term” features horses that are reincarnated U.S. presidents who carry on conversations about their presidencies, their legacies and their current situation. And “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is an operating manual for Team Krill, which has a rivalry with Team Whale in a game in which it can never win.
Karen Russell is at her very best, though, in a dark and memorable Gothic tale like “Proving Up” — a 19th-century Nebraska homesteading story — where her stark language meets her high drama perfectly as she tells of a young boy’s harrowing horse ride in a sudden blizzard: “White octaves of snow shriek from the tallgrass to the great descending blank of the heavens.”
Jim Carmin is a freelance critic in Portland, Ore., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.