Ben’s Review – “The Bone Key” by Sarah Monette

The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth is, in many ways, a tribute to and criticism of early horror writers M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. The book is comprised of ten connected short stories, all of which chronicle the life of Kyle Murchison Booth, an archivist and manuscript curator who, after an experiment with necromancy goes wrong, is introduced into a world of ghosts, demons, and the malevolent dead. The stories are sequential and linked, though each is self-contained.

Though the stories can each stand alone, there is a clear narrative arc that unites them. Over the course of the collection we learn much more about Booth, the circumstances of his troubled upbringing, the constellation of acquaintances and friends whose stories intersect with his, and the bizarre history of his deceased family.

My favorite part of reading this was immersing myself in Monette’s mastery of mood and tone. Booth’s language is suitably lush and charmingly polite. She never goes for the cheap scare. Instead, she takes time to build up the unique world and circumstance of each story, all filtered through the hyper-literate, not always trustworthy consciousness of Booth. The stories at once feel modern, due to their deep interrogation of psychology, but also classical in their language and form.

Yet, it is by following and attempting to rewrite the classical ghost story structure that stories of The Bone Key lose a bit of punch and momentum. Often the stories require substantial exposition to set up the various complexities that tick at the heart of the main conflict, though usually those conflicts are resolved by the ingenuity of the people around Booth, or, as it sometimes happens, by luck, or, in rare cases, not at all.

Booth is not a brave adventurer, nor is he a fearless researcher. He is, at his core, a coward. This dynamic is part of what makes it so fun to read; Booth is a fallible man who is at once easily frightened and completely unable to resist the pull of a mystery. His experience, thus, mirrors the reader’s.

I enjoyed the collection, but a few of the stories fell flat for me. I admit to not having read much James or Lovecraft, so part of it could be that Monette is playing with tropes and expectations that I simply didn’t come to the text with. But that’s sort of an easy out. The stories should stand on their own. And, mostly, they do. My favorite stories are the shorter, tighter ones. “Wait For Me,” “Drowning Palmer,” and “The Green Glass Paperweight” have legitimately frightening moments and deepen our understanding of Booth and the strange world he inhabits. Others, like “The Venebretti Necklace” and “The Wall of Clouds” run a bit long and don’t pack the narrative payoff that their long set ups promised. They are still certainly fine stories—every entry in the collection is marked by Monette’s crystal clear narration, her skilled ear for dialogue, and her fantastic characterizations. When all of those elements fire on all cylinders, the results are awesome.

Booth’s world is one of dark volumes, lost texts, and fantastical artifacts. The Bone Key is a collection unlike any I’ve ever read, and I was very happy to spend time in such a well-realized world. I would definitely recommend The Bone Key to any fan of classical horror fiction or of good writing in general. The Bone Key was recently re-released in a handsome paperback from Prime Books.

The Bone Key gets four pieces of lasagna.

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