Now comes Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a collection that is, Pulitzer committee be damned, Russell's first good book. It is an excellent book. It has its moments of overreach, its grating excesses, but it is the book we were promised in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia! It earns its darkness, amounting to an update on E.T.A. Hoffman's tales, and a number of its stories elicit emotion and reflection in a way Russell's previous efforts signally didn't. Real boys and girls, men and women, have taken the place of storybook characters.
Stephen King loved Swamplandia! He will feel the deepest pangs of envy over "Reeling for the Empire," the second story in Vampires, in which patriotic Japanese girls are tricked into drinking a tea that makes them produce silk from their bodies. If the implicit allegory about prostitution and industrial exploitation is straightforward, the atmospherics and gory details are anything but. The climax, at once ghoulish and triumphant, puts the reader in mind of the kaidan genre introduced to Western readers by Lafcadio Hearn. It's a strange compliment, but a genuine one, to say that Russell's imagination really is capable of inducing nausea and terror.
Like "From Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration" – the Minotaur story mentioned at the beginning of this review – Russell's "Proving Up," previously published as "The Hox River Window" in Zoetrope: All-Story, seems an explicit nod to the prairie lit of Willa Cather. Both stories focus on the struggles of pioneer children facing dangers beyond their years, but "Proving Up" is more mature, subtle, and frightening than Russell's earlier westward gaze.