BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Former rock guitarist flees death to become a vampire and finds something much worse.
PROS: Empathetic female protagonist; escalating emotional conflict; fresh twist on vampire genre; tight wrap-up.
CONS: Slavery and its theme drags a little; setting is claustrophobic; antagonist is a little weak.
BOTTOM LINE: Consistent to Montoure’s strengths in his best short stories, Still Life is beautifully written with strong characters and a surprising plot, and only lacked a larger playground in which to experience its story elements.
Through his short story collections, Michael Montoure has made a name for himself for fascinating worlds, characters that become instant companions, and mysterious conflict that throws you toward emotional climaxes. These short story experiences — I like to call “Montoure Mind Bombs” — are so moving that it is often hard to move right into the next story. Discovering an entire novel’s worth of mind bombing made this an instant purchase.
In Still Life, Montoure has obviously taken the time to ensure that a longer form has not diluted the strengths he displays in the short form. Nikki Velvet, a favorite character previously introduced in the short story “A Cold Season” (from his anthology Slices), is a former rock star who deeply misses her friend and band frontman, Gabe, who killed himself. His suicide has left her alone and desperate to avoid death. She longs to find some kind of home or companion to help her find happiness.
Here’s a sample that sets up the connection to Nikki’s plight, yet does not spoil the revelation that happens early in the story. Nikki has arranged to meet the vampire and is leaving everything behind:
I’d wandered from room to room, playing our final album one last time, your voice and my guitar playing on my speakers, trying just once more to block out the world, deny this moment, still sure that if I just closed my eyes tight and wished hard enough then maybe you’d still be there when I opened them. We’d still be on a stage somewhere, you in the spotlight and me in the shadows, the way it was always supposed to be. I’d look up at you and you’d flash me that vampire smile and keep singing in that angel voice. After the show I’d tell you about the stupid dream I had, how I dreamed you were gone, burned to ash and buried away.
Not going to happen, you’d smile and say. I’m going to live forever. You’ll see.
But I closed my eyes as tight as I can as your voice rose high into the chorus, and when I opened them, you were still gone.
This quote sets up the broken promise that he’d live forever and how much that crushes her spirit. We read on longing for her to find something to resurrect her, and in the end, Montoure pulls off a terrific experience along that desire.
Nikki’s search for victory over death takes the worst possible path when the vampire she turned to for salvation traps her in a prison much worse than the grief she had for Gabe. Montoure’s style puts the reader in Nikki’s prison, physically and emotionally, and the struggle to escape is as real as one could stand, though sometimes to the point of making you antsy for a new point of story focus. Without spoiling the details of this prison, let’s just say the path Nikki chooses feels inescapable. Every effort to escape is thwarted with greater conflict and consequences. This, along with the poetry of the prose, makes the read progress quickly.
The elements of vampire feeding is different than I’ve seen before; it creates a theme of slavery that is powerfully resonant, tapping into the themes of happiness through human connection.
As for complaints, mid-way through, the unnerving sense of claustrophobia boils over before Montoure takes the setting to a new stage. While the release helps maintain interest in the climax, there was a little disappointment that Nikki’s journey was confined for so long. The buildup to the climax is interesting, but the lack of an escalating source of tension left a little drop-off in excitement.
The ending fits the setup. It surprises and is emotional, wrapping up the conflicts to make the story feel complete. Yet I could not help but feel that the scope did not match the story’s potential. The strength of characterization and world building cried out for more exploration. The antagonist is not strong or fearful enough to be the main challenge, but she lets him, and I wonder if the story would have been better with a more difficult source of conflict. One could argue that the main challenge is from within, but external pressure could have been greater.
Still Life is a great story, whether or not you like vampires, because it shares an experience of trying to escape death and find companionship to make life worth living. It is a story about escaping the dark when you feel like the sun will never rise.