A book's epigraph speaks volumes about the writer who has appropriated it. The thematic words at the beginning of Karen Russell's 2011 debut novel Swamplandia! contain a cluster of witty, riddling lines full of skewed logic from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. An inspired and apposite choice, but then we would expect no less. Not every writer can pull this off. Bad writers graft lines from great books onto their average offerings either because their delusions of grandeur make them believe both books are kindred spirits or because they hope the classic can lend gravitas and insight and thus elevate their inferior effort. Good writers, on the other hand - and Russell is undeniably one - judiciously choose and affix epigraphs that touch on or tap into one of their book's concerns. Swamplandia! is a Southern Gothic medley of ghosts, grief and alligator-wrestling, its surrealist antics exuberant but never so as to engulf the ever-present streak of genuine human emotion - not unlike the Alice books, then.
Just by scanning the title of Russell's second collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, we realise we are in for another madcap ride down the rabbit hole. Each of the eight tales here is wildly inventive, some fiendishly bizarre. The title story is representative of the lot. On the first page we are introduced to an ageing man called Clyde, who sits in a lemon orchard in Sorrento watching the fruit ripen and fall. Before we have turned the page Russell pulls the rug from under us and sledgehammers us with a devious twist: visitors think he is a widower, an old man who has survived his children - "They never guess that I am a vampire."
Our expectations are toppled as Russell unveils a new plane of reality. We meet Clyde's beau and fellow vampire, Magreb, both of whom feast on lemons in the hope of assuaging their thirst for blood. Clyde looks back on his youth and recalls how Magreb taught him to lose his fear of daylight and garlic and encouraged him to swap his coffin for a real bed. He admits that back then "I was no suave viscount, just a teenager in a red velvet cape, awkward and voracious" - that appetite compelling him to drink pints of blood per day. So far so conventional, albeit for a tale with an absurd premise. But Russell counterpoises these standard tropes with a rich seam of humour ("I can tell you're not a morning person," Magreb tells the daylight-shy Clyde) and welcome dollops of pathos (Clyde used to be able to transmute into a bat several times a night but now struggles). Russell keeps the best for last, changing tack and bringing in tension as a young girl with an inviting neck appears. Suddenly Clyde is querying the efficacy of lemons as a substitute for blood and, like an addict coming undone, doubts he can keep his cravings for blood at bay.
Other stories dispense with the manic strain and go all-out odd. Reeling for the Empire and The Barn at the End of Our Term deal with fantastic conversions and so owe more to Kafka's Metamorphosis. The first tale, set in imperial Japan, focuses on a group of girls who, after being drugged by a transformation-inducing tea, become conscripted as "reelers" - "Some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar, and part human female." The second, equally strange tale swaps silkworm-women in Japan for horse-men in a godforsaken barn in what is probably Kentucky. A group of former American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses: "Whig, Federalist, Democrat, Republican" are now Clydesdales, palominos and skewbald pintos.
Russell's ingenuity is validated by her insistence of tricksy detail. Her enslaved Japanese mutant-girls, some from poor stock, others the daughters of samurai, have all been duped into grinding work in Nowhere Mill by the evil Recruitment Agent. There the Machine empties the girls of their thread. A blind woman called the zookeeper feeds them mulberry leaves in exchange for the skeins. The detail in Russell's other story, while just as vivid, is more comic and more tightly woven to enhance the unreality of the presidents' new equine existences. Eisenhower is in denial, refusing to "own up to his own mane and tail"; Woodrow Wilson "paws at the stall floor" as he dreams of restoring peace to the world; Warren Harding is a "flatulent roan pony who can't digest grass". They look back on their administrations, debate politics ("What are you, a stallion incumbent or a spineless nag?") and ponder whether the other animals also have human biographies (Wilson believing the suffragettes "came back as kicky rabbits").
Elsewhere, Russell keeps tales top-heavy with reality, only drip-feeding in the absurdity, which in a sense renders them even more disorientating. The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979 begins as a down-to-earth tale of teenage travails and angst, until protagonist Nal locates a tree hollow crammed with seagull plunder - comprising human artefacts lost not from the past but from the future. In the longest story here, The New Veterans, Beverley, a massage therapist, admires a patient-soldier's back tattoo depicting a fallen comrade's "death day" in Iraq, and the more she listens to his war anecdotes the more forcibly she is drawn into the tattoo and the heat of battle. And in The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, Larry, a school bully, comes across a scarecrow resembling a former victim, and finally has his conscience pricked by the effigy's daily erosion.
In each of these tales Russell's flighty or beleaguered characters are altered by the distorted reality she inflicts on them. Nal is adamant the seagulls are "cosmic scavengers" that are "messing with our futures". The tattoo, for all its grotesqueness, is a rabbit-hole that mesmerises the Alice-like Beverley. The scarecrow's bit-by-bit dismemberment is a taunt for the tormented Larry. The more impressionable a character is, the better Russell's stories are, for they allow her to act more subtly. She sprinkles the lightest dusting of fantasy and her creations' imaginations run riot.
That Russell's imagination routinely runs riot, unquenchably in places, is no small feat. We read her and are captivated by her hyperactive talent, and at the same time feel such shape-shifting and reality-mutating is all so effortless for her, as if all she has to do to conjure up another tale is root around in a self-replenishing box of tricks. Closer readings, however, reveal that her seeming abundance does have its limits. Certain ideas feed off or dovetail into one another. Her silk slave and presidents-as-horses tales both end identically with bids for freedom (and a return to normality); the Agent in that first tale is as mysterious and forbidding as the Inspector in a story called Proving Up; and dead mothers haunt Beverley the massage-therapist and the girls in Swamplandia! Images are also recycled: a rabbit makes "a white comma" between Larry and his bullied victim and "The red commas of two fires" is a line in one of Nal's poems; Japanese noblewomen are as "graceful as calligraphy" and Beverley observes a flock of geese in flight, "as gracefully spaced as writing". There are also moments where Russell simply overeggs her metaphorical mix. "They made a sound like gargled light" is baffling, whereas Clyde the vampire walking beneath "a chandelier of furry bodies, heartbeats wrapped in wings" succeeds in being strangely beautiful.
But no sooner have we quibbled than along comes another impressive stream of dark, baffling visions and warped sensibilities to magic us all over again. It's true that such tales will not be to everyone's taste, not least the full-throttle splurge of insanity which is Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating, a story charting the "Team Krill vs Team Whale match" at the South Pole "Food Chain Games" - which in actual fact is every bit as fun and zany as its title. For those that like their fiction to operate on a different agenda from the norm, and for life to be read as absurdity-tinged reality, they could do worse than pick up Vampires in the Lemon Grove and lose themselves in Karen Russell's many weird and wonderful worlds.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.