It’s a warm summer night, the clear light of a full moon shining through an open window. The whisper of a breeze brings the scents of moss and night-blooming flowers, which mingle pleasantly with the perfumes of candles and old books. At the edge of your vision you spy a flutter of movement — a bat? Or the ghostly gesture of something reaching past you to select a book from the shelves? Welcome back to the Nocturnal House.
Still Life by Michael Montoure was one of my favorite new books of 2013. It’s a story of vampiric transformation, where the hazy romantic trappings that cushion many vampire tales are peeled away, exposing the bare viscera and bones of loneliness, need, and the bloodsucking truths (both metaphorical and shockingly physical) of relationships that have turned toxic.
From the back cover:
When the beautiful stranger who’d promised to make her a vampire turned out to be all too human, burned-out rock star Nikki Velvet was left weak, helpless, and addicted to his blood.
Now, trapped in her new life with him — and with Paul, the vampire she’s replaced as Sylvan’s favorite — Nikki struggles to find a way out before time runs out for all of them …
STILL LIFE is a story of loss, isolation, the things we mistake for love, and the way back out of the dark.
Nikki Velvet doesn’t want to become a vampire because of romantic notions of enlightenment, eternal youth, or love beyond death. She’s seen the wreckage of death’s triumph over love in the wake of the suicide of Gabe, her best friend and musical partner, and she wants to walk away from it all. She wants a promise that death won’t come for her, and she believes that Sylvan can fulfill that promise.
He nodded slowly. “I can arrange that.”
I sank back against the seat, letting go of tension I didn’t know I was holding onto, and I just nodded.
“But first,” he said, “show me you’re really willing. Show me a small gesture of faith.”
I turned to look at him. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small, elaborately engraved metal case. Too small for cigarettes. Business cards? He opened it, held it out to me.
A single razor blade immaculate on a bed of rose petals.
“Bleed for me,” he said softly.
The dusty old saying about appearances being deceiving once again proves to have a steady beat of truth.
My head was throbbing and I could hear my heart beating.
That wasn’t the only heartbeat I heard. I sat up abruptly, off-balance, shoving him away.
“What?” he said, looking unconcerned. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re warm,” I said, trying to stand up.
The faintest frown creased his forehead. “Yes. You said you were cold.”
“No. No. You’re warm.” I managed to get to my feet. “I can hear your heartbeat.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “ . . . And?”
I pointed a wavering finger at him. “You’re not a vampire.”
“Oh.” He smiled, finished his wine. “I never said I was.”
But Sylvan isn’t the only one who isn’t what he seems …
“Paul,” Sylvan said behind me, his voice sounding tired and resigned, “stop her, please.”
There was a sound from above me —
As the small man swung himself over the balcony railing —
Dropped to the ground in front of me, as gentle as a cat, as silent as a spider.
Nikki returns from death three days later, struggling to make her weak, awkward body clamber out of the bathtub she was left in, and coming to the empty realization that she doesn’t know anything about her new condition. Paul, the quiet, seemingly shrunken man who transformed her, won’t or can’t give her any answers. Sylvan also isn’t interested in giving her answers, but the first sharing of blood dulls the pressing ache of Nikki’s questions.
His blood flowed into my wounds and was pulled inside.
I could feel his hand moving. Feel it from the inside, the way he felt it. His other hand reached around behind my head and I could feel it moving, he ran his fingers through my hair and I could feel my hair, soft and silky, through his fingers.
Electric, the two of us, a circuit closed.
I shuddered, and he shuddered in time with me.
There’s a line you never get to cross, as long as you live. The edge of your body. You’re trapped inside your skin, and no matter how many times you reach out to touch a friend or a lover, no matter how close you hold someone or how fiercely you make love, when it begins, when it ends, and all the moments in between, you are still yourself, alone. I know you knew this. It was in all the love songs you wrote. I think it was the hidden impulse we both had, down inside, that made us take razors to our skin, that desire to open up and let the world in, to let ourselves out, to take that sharp thin line of flesh and erase it.
Here I was, outside at last.
As the nights roll by, Sylvan still doesn’t give her any answers, but the heady rush of his blood is almost enough to silence her unease; when it isn’t, the nagging whisper of uncertainty keeps her in the house. Life with Sylvan is a slow haze, with Paul hovering near the edges. Sylvan takes Nikki out, shows her off to people “in the know” about this shadowy side of the world, but doesn’t show any real concern for her or Paul. Paul, who once was Sylvan’s favorite; Paul, who gives Nikki her first lessons in what the consequences of Sylvan’s neglect can be.
Still Life is a razor-sharp look at what numbness and entropy can do to someone. Becoming a vampire doesn’t fix any of Nikki’s problems or make the heartache of Gabe’s suicide any easier to bear. It just buries those concerns under a suffocating blanket of other needs: the need for blood, the need to navigate Sylvan’s constantly shifting affection and humor so she can be given blood, and the weight of all her unanswered questions, pulling her down into the inky depths.
While Still Life does look into the abyss of depression and the pendulum swings of an uncertain emotional attachment, it’s not a depressing read. For one thing, Michael Montoure’s ability to turn a phrase is amazing:
I was smiling, actually smiling for the first time in days. I felt like I was coming apart and that was all right, I wanted to stand in the middle of it all and spread my arms cruciform wide and be carried away piece by piece, a communion on everyone’s lips.
Also, Still Life feels familiar — it’s full of themes and characters that are woven into the shared subconscious of goths (or anyone else who has ever felt unsure or alone, seeking something or someone to provide that electric jolt of connection), but none of it is a cliche. It’s a novel of emotional truths, dark and bright, dressed up in fangs and post-modern ironic velvet. We’ve all met people like Nikki, Sylvan, Paul, and the others — now we’re able to view them in a fractured mirror and decide how much truth and power we want to imbue those reflections with. Ultimately, Still Life is a book about choices: the fear and indecision that are entwined with choices, how you can become stuck at crossroads of your own making, and how, at the core of it all, making a choice is always better than sinking into passive resignation.
Lines of light, delicate traceries in the ground, connecting different graves like circuits. Sometimes strong and pulsing lines between adjacent graves, and I’d look at the gravestones and see that they’d belonged to husband and wife. But lines spread out everywhere, a network all connected, family, friends, and I knew what it was and if I just put out my hand I could feel a tingle as it passed through me. Love was real and it left traces, left its scars carved in the world, even after death.
And I’d laugh and dance among the lines, arms raised up to heaven, and I didn’t care if anyone saw me or not.
I started to see them a little clearer, after that. See faces and shapes.
Don’t misunderstand me. I hadn’t forgotten about trying to reach you. You were the reason I was still here. But I wasn’t coming here just to visit you, any more. I was coming to visit everyone.
Still Life is a darkly-shining example of what I truly believe is at the heart of being a goth: sometimes the world is an unsettling and uncertain place, but there’s beauty and joy to be found, too. You just have to hang on and keep looking, even if it means visiting beloved ghosts in a graveyard.