Vampires in the Lemon Grove & Lemon-Lemon Cake with Raspberry Filling
There’s a deep, dark magic at work in each of Karen Russell’s short stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Whether it’s aging vampires seeking the one thing that can quell their eternal thirst, girls turning into silkworms, or kids haunted by a scarecrow that resembles a classmate they bullied, the characters are at the mercy of the supernatural. In her first book since her Pulitzer Prize–nominated novel, Swamplandia!, Russell has crafted an eight-story collection that’s mysterious, hilarious, and more than a little bit disturbing.
In the title story, vampires Clyde and Magreb have taken up residence in a lemon grove in Sorrento. Over the years they’ve been together, Magreb has taught Clyde that vampires aren’t exactly how myths portray them—they can go in the sun, they don’t have to sleep in coffins, and garlic doesn’t hurt them. And they don’t have to drink blood. Together they try to find something, anything, to relieve their thirst. They hunted “liquid chimeras,” trying “mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties.” And the one thing that worked was sinking their fangs into lemons.
But now the lemons aren’t doing the trick anymore, and the couple tries to come to terms their increasingly difficult relationship — “our marriage…is a commitment to starve together”—while hiding their identities as vampires. Though the themes here are mundane, Russell knows how to give them a fresh spin.
Reading Russell is like putting on glasses in the morning — you’ll see things differently after picking up her books. “Reeling for the Empire” is one of the most memorable, and unsettling, tales in the collection. An agent recruits poor, young Japanese girls to work in a silk mill, then drugs them with tea to turn them into silkworms. Their stomachs produce balls of silk, which they must spin onto a machine each day, or else suffer great pain. Each day they empty their bodies of colored silk — “Nobody has ever guessed her own color correctly…I would have bet my entire five-yen advance that mine would be light gray, like my cat’s fur. But then I woke and pushed the swollen webbing of my thumb and a sprig of green came out.” — and at night they eat mulberry leaves. The girls keep spinning until they realize that they’re slaves and stage a revolt that’s at once satisfying and troubling.
Most charming is “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” which imagines dead presidents reincarnated as horses in a barn. The narrator is Rutherford B. Hayes, “a skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare.” Among the 11 presidential horses are James Garfield, “a tranquil grey percheron,” and John Adams, “a thoroughbred with four white socks and a cranberry tint to his mane.” What’s the barn? Buchanan believes it is heaven — he’s being rewarded “for annexing Oregon” — Harding believes it is hell. When pondering the question, Adams only asks: “Is Thomas Jefferson here?” While the presidents attempt to parse the meaning of the farm, they keep busy: Every spring Jackson “runs uncontested for the office of Spokeshorse of the Western Territories.” They ponder marching to Washington. Hayes becomes convinced that his wife has been reincarnated as a sheep. Then one day James Garfield jumps over the fence into the unknown, and the presidents become obsessed with leaping over the fence themselves.
The presidents seem helpless, much like the silkworm girls, or the vampires, but each tortured character in Russell’s stories still has a certain amount of agency. It may be enacting revenge and not saving their own lives, but the characters aren’t without an idea or two of how to help themselves. There are a few weaker stories here, like “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” in which a boy competes with his older brother for a girl and seagulls hide items of importance to the characters. It doesn’t have the same ambitious reach that the rest of the stories do, and its banality is precisely what Russell doesn’t do as well. Russell is at her best when she invites us into the strangest worlds, shows us around with poetic language and humor, and leaves us right when things are getting good.
In the title story, the vampires search the globe for something to satisfy their thirst. Since I’m often thirsting for a great cake, I decided to start with a basic lemon cake (tweaked from the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe) then put my own spin on it. This cake has a layer of raspberry in the middle, lemon frosting, and raspberries on top.
LEMON-LEMON CAKE WITH RASPBERRY FILLING
- 2 sticks unsalted butter (at room temperature)
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs (at room temperature)
- 1/3 cup lemon zest (approximately 4 lemons)
- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cups buttermilk (at room temperature)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 jar raspberry preserves
- 1 stick unsalted butter (softened)
- 1 lb confectioner's sugar
- Lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
- Lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons)
- Raspberries (for decoration)
- Preheat oven to 350ÂºF. Grease and flour 2 9-inch cake pans.
- Cream the butter and sugar until theyâ€™re light and fluffy (about three minutes). Add the eggs one at a time, then the lemon zest.
- In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
- In another bowl, combine the lemon juice, buttermilk, and vanilla.
- Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour.
- Divide the batter evenly between the pans and bake. (The Barefoot Contessaâ€™s recipe called for 45-60 minutes, but mine was done in 30, so adjust baking time to your oven.)
- Let cool for a few minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack. Let cool completely.
- Put the butter in a bowl and gradually combine with the confectionerâ€™s sugar, thinning it out with lemon juice. Youâ€™ll want a thick consistency, and when itâ€™s done, stir in the lemon zest.
- Place the first cake on the cake stand.
- Pipe a rim of frosting around the edge of the cake, then fill in the circle with preserves. I put the preserves in a bowl and stirred a few times to loosen them up.
- Top with the second cake, then frost.
- Decorate with raspberries.
Source: I checked this book out of the Chicago Public Library.