I am afraid of many things. Merging into traffic on the expressway, bulbous shaped spiders crawling out of dark crevices, and being trapped in the suffocating folds of a massive crowd are just a few things that give me anxiety. They’re not phobias though. I don’t go out of my way to avoid these things (well except for the spiders) and my day-to-day life is not completely derailed by experiencing them either. Life goes on even if creepy crawlies ruin the day.
The reason I bring this up is because fear is one of the major subjects of Karen Russell’s novel, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. We read two short stories from the novel for our southern writers in New York class, and I instantly fell in love with Russell’s ability to weave classic horror elements with a contemporary writing style. I wasted no time in reading pass the required amount and now I only have three of her short stories left to digest. They’re fairly easy stories to read, but the ambiguous endings will drive you crazy with curiosity. It’s a real shame that I can’t just call up Karen Russell and ask her all my questions that her stories pose. I suppose that’s part of the brilliance of her stories. They keep you guessing right up to the end and even beyond.
Out of the stories that I’ve read, the one that has really stuck with me is the fourth in the collection called “Proving Up”. The story is set in 1860’s Nebraska and revolves around a small family of settlers hoping to finally get their land deed by meeting all the requirements of the Homestead Act of 1862. One of these requirements is the nearly impossible act of possessing a glass window, which the central family happens to own. The youngest boy of the family sets out to loan the window to another family hoping to prove up, but on his long trek through the prairie he encounters a freak blizzard and a terrifying stranger who may or may not be human.
The story is a study in the effects of guilt, made worse by the alienating environment of 1860’s Nebraska, on the human psyche. We observe the foolishly optimistic father, the sorrow-stricken mother of three dead daughters, the potentially violent eldest son, and the youngest son, eager to prove himself a man, interact with one another in an isolated wasteland. Struggling to deal with their own inner demons, these characters (along with a few others) fall victim to the personification of their fears. The story is chilling, tragic, and teaches us all an important lesson that sometimes the monsters are spiders and sometimes they are our own troubled minds.