‘The Ghost Birds’ by Karen Russell

It’s 2081. Some years have passed since the ‘Great Death.’ Even so, “still-burning fires” encircle the ruins of Portland. The wealthy live in “domed compounds” (my partner, the kids and I spent a rainy afternoon at the Eden Project recently; we stood on the tread of a metallic, zig-zaggy staircase, next to a sign which warned you about the time the queue was likely to take, due to the over-populated dome, waiting for the troop of people who had already gone up, to descend from the high-point of the tropical rainforest viewing balcony…). The “domed compounds” tuck in like “bubble-wrap” on the smouldering, scalded earth. Everyone wears “respirators”. Oxygen has been commodified. School? Of the permanently virtual kind. Starling – the narrator Jasper’s daughter, expertly characterised as a no-nonsense teenage girl – acquires knowledge via “the blue sinkhole of the Hololight.” “Your eyes cannot distinguish between a digital hallucination and a real ghost,” Jasper says. “A critical window is closing.” Even though living avians are long extinct, engulfed by the burning carbon sinks, Jasper is fanatical in his pursuit of the ghosts of birds – snowy owls and nightingales, tundra swans and geese – which are sometimes detectable to the human eye, or if not, to Jasper’s spectrograph. His singular wish? To take his daughter to Chapman Elementary School, the location of a recent sighting of a flock of paranormal swifts. On arrival at the abandoned building, a tomb of ash and dust, father and daughter read the engraving on the school’s door: “Send us Forth to be Builders of a Better World.” The ending – part thriller, part numinous elegy – is dazzlingly, achingly memorable.   

First published in The New Yorker, October 2021, and available to subscribers to read here. You can also listen to Karen Russell reading the story here

‘Orange World’ by Karen Russell

Becoming a mother forces you into confrontation with parts of yourself you’d rather leave buried—childhood wounds, feelings of ineptitude, intrusive worries about worst-case scenarios. In Operating Instructions, a diary of the first year of her son’s life, Anne Lamott recalls praying, “Please, just let him outlive me.” Karen Russell dives into that dark territory here, in which Rae, a new mother, makes a deal with a demon living in the sewer across from her house. After she finishes nursing her own baby, she’ll lie in the gutter and breastfeed the devil in exchange for a guarantee of her son’s safety: 

It lays its triangular head on her collarbone, using its thin-fingered paws to squeeze milk from her left breast into its hairy snout. Its tail curls around her waist. Unlike her son, the devil has dozens of irregular teeth, fanged and broken, in three rows; some lie flat against the gums, like bright arrowheads in green mud. Its lips make a cold collar around her nipple.

This nightmarish vision of breastfeeding is all the more unsettling for the way it also contains a whisper of tenderness—that tail curling familiarly around her like an embrace. Having recently become a mother—my seven-week-old son is napping as I write this—Russell’s story now seems to me decidedly un-fantastical in how it portrays birth and mothering as an undoing of all the old rules. Rae’s love for her son “scares her with its annihilating force. It’s loosening the corset strings of her history, the incarcerated fat of ‘personality.’” 

First published in The New Yorker, May 28, 2018, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Orange World, Knopf, 2019

‘The New Veterans’ by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s stories are the illegitimate children of Ray Bradbury and Annie Proulx. Her prose surface is as slick with coloured lights as a soap bubble, and the reader skids off it in every possible direction the story allows, looking for the meaning of the things that are happening. This is so exciting it must be bad for you. ‘The New Veterans’, is narrated by a masseuse, in language carefully inappropriate to the discourse. What characterises a “massage subject”, she explains, as if addressing beginners in the trade, is that they try but fail to be relaxed on the table. It’s “a ruse that never works”, though. Their bodies talk anyway, confiding, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.” Today’s subject is a soldier, his upper back covered with a hyper-realist tattoo of his time in Iraq. What follows could have been just a clever riff on ‘The Illustrated Man’, postmodern eye contact with Bradbury, half-mischievous, half deadly serious; but as the story moves into itself it discovers its own sad values. The masseuse, drawn in, is captured by the massage subject despite herself, and turned into his unwitting sin-eater. She knows, she says, that the dead give off an uncomfortable illumination, “a phosphor than can permanently damage the eyes of the living. Necroluminescence–the light of the vanished.”

First published in Granta, Winter 2013 and available online ”to subscribers. Collected in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Chatto & Windus, 2013

‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’/’The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutiss’ by Karen Russell

Russell has been writing horror-infused feminist literary fiction for years, way ahead of the current curve. ‘Vampires’ showcases her humour and tremendous, elastic imagination, using conditional immortality as a metaphor for long-term relationships. ‘Eric Mutiss’ has the verve and energy of a campfire story, but is haunted by melancholy. It’s a story about how cruel and rejecting we can be to each other.

‘Vampires’ first published in American Zoetrope: All Story, 2007. ‘Graveless Doll’ first published in Conjunctions 55, Fall 2010 and available as audio here. Both collected in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Chatto & Windus, 2013