13 October 2008

Book Review: The Bone Key

The Bone Key
by Sarah Monette (2007)

The Bone Key came to my attention from a recommendation on LibraryThing from another user who noticed my interest in foundational weird fiction. This shows one of the tremendous benefits of cataloging your books in an online community: people know what you will like when they can see the whole range of what you read. Hail LibraryThing!

Author Sarah Monette provides a good encapsulation of her purpose in writing the stories in The Bone Key in her brief introduction:
This book is a series of interconnected short stories, written between 2000 and 2006. Their narrator/protagonist is a museum archivist—neurotic, erudite, insomniac—and he and his world are both homages to and interrogations of the works of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. They are, in other words, old-fashioned ghost stories with, at times, a modern sensibility shining through them.
I wouldn’t classify Lovecraft’s work as “old-fashioned ghost stories”—not remotely, they shifted the focus of horror into the modern secular era—so perhaps he is the modern sensibility? No, the “interrogation” part is what Monette means by a modern sensibility. By her own admission, she has added a psycho-sexual element to her stories not present in James or Lovecraft (neither of whom took much interest in female characters—or characters, period) and more personal development. Monette does show a keen understanding of Lovecraft’s style and themes, regardless of how she classifies his work, but James does more of the heavy lifting.

However, there’s more influence here than M. R. and H. P.: I think Algernon Blackwood’s presence echoes as strongly through these tales, and any psychic investigator character owes a great deal to John Silence. Kyle Murchison Booth is an unabashed magnet for necromantic weirdness. Some of the stories put his character and past in the spotlight (“Bringing Helena Back,” “Elegy for a Demon Lover,” and the title story), while in others he serves more as an interlocutor and observer (“Wait for Me,” “The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox”). These shifts in focus remind me of the different ways that Blackwood used John Silence, although Monette keeps each story in the first person from Booth’s point of view.

What Monette does with with Kyle Murchison Booth is examine the anonymous antiquarians of Lovecraft and James’s work, where they served only as conduits to ideas. She imagines what deeper motivations might drive such figures. What sort of men are these isolated scholars who delve into places where man should not delve, and seem to have no life beyond their proddings into dusty tomes in search of arcane knowledge? Monette offers up Booth as her personal answer to these questions.

Booth is a loner, the quintessential candlelight academic draped in a dun cloak of anguish. Books are his own religion. His sexuality is murky—at least until “Elegy for a Demon Lover”—but his mental and physical distance from people is sharp. There is little about Booth to like, but there is little about him that isn’t fascinating, and he’s curious about the strange and bizarre, even beyond his better judgment, and that’s what a reader needs from a weird story protagonist.

The ten stories in The Bone Key should be read in order, since there are subtle developments and a growing history that forms as the reader follows Kyle Murchison Booth from one supernatural encounter to another. In particular, the events of the first story, Bringing Helena Back, hover over the rest of the chronicles. Booth agrees to help his old friend Augustus Blaine try to resurrect his dead wife through a wicked Flemish occult tome. As you might imagine, and as Booth fears, this is bound to backfire horribly. Booth’s simmering love for his friend creates the emotional spine and tension—here’s that psycho-sexual element that Monette touted in her introduction.

That inaugural story wasn’t intended to lead into a series, but the character of Booth proved too interesting to hold back. The Venebretti Necklace concerns a mystery inside the museum where Booth works, the Parrington. His archival work in the basement turns up a ghastly surprise: a woman’s skeleton shackled and bricked up in the wall. Research by staff archaeologist Miss Coburn uncovers that the dead women is the wife of a city Alderman who vanished fifty-five years ago, supposedly with the museum’s Venbretti Necklace. This artifact originally belonged to seventeenth century Milanese witch and poisoner, and carries a reputation of ill-luck with it. We learn much about Booth’s friendless nature and anti-social streak here. His odd relationship with Miss Coburn is as revealing as the horror they find when they search through the archives of an earlier museum director. The length of the story does work against it, however, by dissipating the tension.

The Bone Key delves into Kyle Murchison Booth’s family history—and leaves no doubt why he lives such a solitary existence. Booth’s meeting with a man claiming to be the lawyer for his deceased grandmother reveals a curse on the Murchison family. Like a good gothic shudder tale, it eventually leads us to a graveyard at night. The twisted sexuality of the story—which ultimately is a red-herring—is quietly unnerving. The best part of the “The Bone Key” is the shadows it casts over Kyle Murchison Booth in the rest of the stories.

Wait for Me is the first superb work in the volume. (Monette has placed it complete on her website.) It follows a Jamesian script: a haunted mirror, a haunted room, an old family secret. It also taps in Lovecraft’s structure where most of the action consists of the narrator pouring over spooky journal entries through long nights, driven to unearth a horrible truth. The subtle terror of the wrathful girl with no eyes in the vanity mirror inside a locked room is a potent one and make this the most memorable work in the collection.

On the reverse side, one of the weakest stories is Drowning Palmer, which borders on too traditional and predictable. The story is best when it centers on Booth’s feelings about getting forced to go to his high school reunion, which is as uncomfortable a situation imaginable for an awkward and friendless man. But the dreams that assault him about a murder in the school’s past leads into a plot without much surprise. Booth having revealing dreams is a plot device Monette falls back upon too frequently times.

The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox leads directly out of “Drowning Palmer,” where Wilcox has a small role as one of Booth’s former classmates. Four months after the high school reunion, Wilcox writes to Booth to ask for his help in examining the library he has inherited from his eccentric uncle Preston Wilcox. What follows when Booth arrives at Preston Wilcox’s mansion and goes through the dead man’s notes dealing with his belief that he would live forever is one of the more subtle and interesting stories in The Bone Key, but stumbles at the end with too fast a wrap-up. It owes a debt to one of Lovecraft’s lesser tales, “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and the sinister use of trees might be a nod to “The Willows” by Blackwood.

In the next story, Elegy for a Demon Lover, Monette firmly steps over the threshold into the realm of the sexual, a place her two inspirations, James and Lovecraft, would have never even considered going. It’s the most raw piece, bringing sharp pain to the solitary Kyle Murchison Booth. Booth meets a strange and beautiful European man named Ivo, and finds himself seduced completely—even though the lonely archivist knew something was wrong about Ivo from the moment he first saw him. The title of the story will tell you where this is headed, and makes a perfect mini-tragedy.

The novelette-length The Wall of Clouds competes with “Wait for Me” for the volume’s best story; it’s genuinely frightening at the conclusion and contains real shocks and surprises. The narrative begins with Booth experiencing something long overdue: a mental and physical breakdown. The director of the Parrington museum shuffles him off to a convalescence home, the Hotel Chrysalis, which is packed with entertaining eccentric characters, a history of strange deaths, poltergeist activity, and a ghastly elevator. Monette channels M. R. James wonderfully here.

The Bone Key ends with its two briefest stories. The Green Glass Paperweight looks closely into Booth’s hated guardians, the Siddonses. The death of Mr. Siddons leaves Booth with his choice of bequest from the dead man’s belongings, and he chooses a paperweight with a special meaning for him, as well a dark power that has reached into the present. It requires close reading to get the complete effect of the subtlety at work here. Listening to Bone is the only work original to the collection, and it makes for a pleasant send-off. Booth, now aware he draws necromantic mysteries to him, tries to shake off the ghost of a little boy who want to “go home.” The piece concludes with a tender moment with one of the most sympathetic characters found in the stories.

The collection is worth a read for any fan of the Victorian ghost story, although the more hard-core Lovecraft fans may find it an overall disappointment; if you lean more toward James and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, you’ll discover more to like. Monette sometimes tilts toward over-subtlty, and the weaker stories tend to whimper out without much impact. Some elements, such as Booth’s eldritch dreams, get played over too often. But in the big picture The Bone Key is an enjoyable shiver volume, and if Monette can’t compete with Lovecraft, James, or Blackwood, that’s not too stinging a criticism.