RogerBW's Blog

The Bone Key, Sarah Monette 09 November 2015

2007 collection of short horror stories in the style of H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James. Kyle Murchison Booth just wants to be left alone to work on his antique books and letters. But supernatural events keep happening to him.

In her introduction, Monette explains her admiration for Lovecraft and James, and her wish to write in the same vein, but with male characters who were more psychologically complex, and female characters who were… well, present at all. (She also admires Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, but nobody's perfect.) She has very largely succeeded.

Booth was inspired by The Statement of Randolph Carter, and is a fairly weak sort of fellow: in the first story, Bringing Helena Back, he is persuaded by his rather more dynamic friend to help out in a necromantic ritual to resurrect the friend's dead wife. It doesn't end well.

In fact very little could be said to end well here. The ghosts of Booth's world are always malevolent, and while their hatred may in principle focus on those who did them dirt in life it often isn't well-aimed. They make an area unpleasant simply by existing there, they give bad dreams to the sensitive, and they may well kill people who simply remind them of their past tormentors.

Meanwhile various facets of Booth's past and present are explored as side notes within the stories, which I think work better taken as a group than they would have individually: The Bone Key has him ambushed by disturbing relatives of his deceased mother, for example, while The Green Glass Paperweight looks at the guardianship he was under after his parents' death. In Drowning Palmer he visits his old school:

I found—and was filled by the discovery with something akin to despair—that I remembered the route to the dormitories with perfect clarity.

Even when going about his usual business he has an appealing voice:

Moreover, by that point in my reasoning, my conscience as an archivist had calculated how long those diaries had been sitting in that corner unheeded, and even in the midst of my dread and indecision, I was appalled.

and although painfully shy he has an ear for the perfect line:

He left me then, with Miss Chatteris to sit by me. I was too ill to mind.

These are of course stories of suggestion rather than gore, and some may find the pace slow. If you like the style of Lovecraft (as distinct from the Cthulhu mythos) or James, this won't be a problem for you. High points for me were Wait for Me and The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox, the latter in particular being Jamesian in a way that other pastichers simply haven't managed to capture. Highly recommended.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 02:55pm on 10 November 2015

    Sounds like a book I might like to read even though I'm not into short stories but these sound fascinating.

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