Karen Russell, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator"

Ava and Ossie spend the summer unsupervised in the swamp.

(from Zoetrope All-Story and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves)

You know, Ossie’s possessions are nothing like those twitch-fests you read about in the Bible, no netherworld voices or pigs on a hill. Her body doesn’t smolder like a firecracker, or ululate in dead languages. Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. They steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water.

The mood is darkly exhilarating: Unseen, mostly unknown menace lurks just out of sight. It’s not just the gators; it’s the sisters’ imaginations, their dementias. This story does a good job of matching the reader’s imagined horrors with real ones. But their situation is preposterously, contrivedly horrible. The feeling that the absent father was careless leaving these girls in the middle of Swamplandia! is counterbalanced by the sinking feeling that the author was very careful in doing the very same thing. It’s a greasy slope to start thinking of authors like that (comparing them, essentially, to the bad guy in Saw — not that I had the stomach to watch that movie).
But I did find myself occasionally pondering the author, for instance: each time the young narrator used a word like stridency or ululate or noncommittal. It’s probably legit that somebody Ava’s age would know/use those words, but it gave me pause. But the intrigue overcame all pauses, and that the true horrors are never revealed is no frustration. It’s really no fun talking in such vague terms, but that’s your fault for not having read this already. It’s a good story. Read it already.

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