Singling out a Karen Russell story for being strange is a bit like acknowledging a raindrop for being wet. Beginning with her debut 2006 collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” Russell has presented an expanding universe of fiction that is so cracked, so twisted and so brilliantly described that when readers encounter her new book, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” they will have no choice but to give in to the urge to ask one of the most-cliched questions known to writer and reader alike: “How the hell did she come up with that?”
The story that finally prompts that question is “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which 11 American presidents enter the afterlife as stabled horses, on a farm run by a man the story’s protagonist, President Rutherford B. Hayes, reasons “a little on the short side to be God. His fly was down, his polka-dotted underclothes exposed. Surely God would not have faded crimson dots on his underclothes? Surely God would wear a belt?”
How the presidents come to grips with their circumstance — or in the case of Hayes, refuse to accept it — is the stuff of high comedy and great tragedy. “Is this Heaven?” the newly arrived John Adams asks his stablemates. “That depends,” Ulysses S. Grant answers. “Do you want this to be Heaven? Does this look like Heaven to you?”
Below, Russell describes the story behind “The Barn at the End of Our Term.”
“That’s one of the older stories in this book. It’s funny to reconstruct where it came from,” Russell says. “I remember watching some documentary about the U.S. presidents, with all these pompous voice-overs about their legacies and how invested they were in how history would remember them.
“And then, I was living with my best friend, who was an equestrian, and she had this little book with this, like, tiny, bespectacled woman who looked like a school librarian on, like, a rearing stallion that was called, ‘There Are No Problem Horses, Only Problem Riders.’ So I was paging through that book and learning a little about these kind of finicky horses, problematic stallions and things, and I had also read this amazing book by Kevin Brockmeier, which is called, ‘The Brief History of the Dead.’ It’s an amazing book. I guess the basic premise of it is, ‘What would a brief history of the dead be? Their lives.’ It’s about these folks who find themselves in an antechamber in some kind of purgatory where none of their questions are answered. And they’re all speculating about what it could mean that they’ve died, and they’re just sort of stuck in this in-between place.
“So I think the confluence of all of those things, somehow my brain knit them together into that story, and I was just thinking — I mean, I think it’s absurd from the top down, right? — but I was thinking about this really kind of beautiful and naive faith people have that death is going to give them some kind of final answer, you know. Either there’s going to be, you know, whatever the answer is. Like: That’s it. The end. Or that there will be kind of a final reckoning. And I was just thinking about these poor guys who — it’s even more mystifying than their lives on this planet. And just the kind of arithmetic we’re doing all the time where we try to explain our present circumstances based on our past actions. I just thought presidents were kind of a good fit, kind of a good human to inject into these horse bodies, because just, you know, what a fall from D.C., what a fall from grace. And just to think about our human investment in our legacies and what that would really look like, how ephemeral and kind of misty and remote that would look from the barn at the end of our term.”