09 January 2012

Recommended Reading: Slices by Michael Montoure

I met Michael Montoure through last October's Coffin Hop. I read his short story collection Slices over the holidays, and let me tell you, it is mind-blowingly good.

Buy this immediately: go now go!

Slices contains a glorious collection of twisted, dark, and dreamlike pieces. The fantasy and horror tropes in Slices remind me, more than anything I've read recently, of the original Twilight Zone series. Featuring time slips ("Counterclockwise"), vampires ("One Last Sunset" and "Only Monsters"), serial killers ("The Thirteenth Boy") and the numerous ways in which perception governs reality ("Cold Season," "Life Story," and "Daddy's Girls"), the stories in Slices feel to me like the stories Rod Serling would be writing if he were still with us today.

The failures and beauties of human relationships are at the core of Michael's work. Few of his characters work on a solo basis, and those that do are drawn into unusual or regrettable positions. The fantasy and horror elements feel familiar in the sense that a recurring nightmare or a story heard in childhood feels familiar. These tropes resonate powerfully with the emotional problems at the heart of each tale. In my opinion, Slices is at its strongest when considering the many permutations of men's relationships, most sadly and beautifully in the context of male friendship, brotherhood, and love.

I asked Michael a few questions about the art of the dark short story, his process, and what's next.

ET: What draws you to the short story as a form? As a writer of horror and dark fantasy, what are the advantages of writing shorts as opposed to novel length works? 

MM: For me, horror is such a concentrated emotion that I think it works better in short, sharp shocks. You can take a relatively simple idea, a few clear images, and express them in a very direct way, whereas that effect might be diluted if you were to take those ideas and stretch them out over the canvas of a novel. I think the short story lets you take more risks -- and puts your characters at more risk, as well. I think a lot of readers and writers have the expectation that if you commit to follow a character, or set of characters, for the length of an entire novel, then you'll get something like a happy ending, even if you're dealing with a horror novel. Novels rarely kill *everyone.* Whereas in a short story, you have no idea who's safe, or if anyone is.

Also, in a short story, it's all right to leave the reader with questions, to not explain or explore all of its dark corners completely, which I think can create a wonderful sense of unease. In a novel, again, you have the expectation that your commitment to it earns you the right to have everything explained, and tied up neatly. That's not necessarily the kind of ending I'm interested in.

ET: One of the things I loved about the stories in Slices is the sense of a larger world, not quite like regular reality, pressing at the edges of the story. I thought this was particularly strong in "Watch the Coin," where there's brief reference to a Fey invasion, or in "Puppets," where it seems something has shifted enough to allow the central magic of the story to take place. How much deliberate world-building do you do while you're working on a story? How do you decide how much detail to include in the final product?

MM: I generally do have a pretty good sense of the world in mind, whether it makes it to the page or not. It's not really a separate process -- I don't think in terms of, "oh, here's an interesting fictional setting, now I need to come up with stories to set in it." The story always comes first, and what the world needs to be grows organically out of that.

In a broad sense, all of my stories take place in the same world, although their details might disagree.  (The only stories I try to keep any sense of continuity to are my "Shadow Market" stories, such as "Puppets." If a story reveals details about how the Market works, I'm not going to contradict that in another story later on.)

As far as how much detail to reveal -- I figure there are two levels of knowledge a character can have of this unseen larger world. Either all of this is new to them, or they know all about it (or think they do, anyway). In the first case, the only details to reveal are the details that are revealed to the character. In the second case -- this *is* their ordinary world, their everyday life. So I try not to have them think about it or react to it or explain it anymore than they naturally would.  Nothing jerks me out of a story faster than having a character remark on something that should be second nature to them -- me, in my everyday life, I rarely think about internal combustion engines, pistons, and drive trains, I just get in my car and I go to the store. My characters should approach their lives the same way.

With this approach, there is a lot of cool worldbuilding I don't get to share, a level of detail I don't go into, points left unexplained and questions I don't answer. Which brings me quite nicely back to your first question.

ET: What are you working on now? What can we expect to see from you next? 

MM: As it happens, I just wrote about that very thing this morning at my blog!  "You Were Warned: What To Expect From Me in 2012."

The short answer is, I'm definitely going to be releasing more short stories; I'm working on a science-fiction webseries with some very talented people; and I plan to finish and release a novel -- one which, ironically enough, considering everything else I've just told you, builds and expands upon the events of one of the stories in "Slices."

For more about Michael Montoure and to read "Puppets" - one of my favourite stories from Slices - go to


Deborah Walker said...

That's an interesting approach to world building. I often notice it in short stories when a character or the narrator info dumps. Can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the author.

But I like the addition of sly unexplained details.

Congratulations on your new collection. It sounds fabulous. I'm off to buy it.

Autumn Shelley said...

Now I'm hooked! Adding 'Slices' to my Nook as we speak!
I trust my girl Elizabeth not to steer me wrong!
(How's that medieval NaNo pice coming???)
Best wishes and I look forward to reading!

KM Nalle said...

Sounds like an great collection of stories. I've always wanted to try writing short stories, but I have to admit they scare me a little. I'm not quite sure where they should start or end. I admire those who can do it well!