The Bone Key by Sarah Monette is a collection of interconnected short stories which begin the adventures of Kyle Murchison Booth, the overall ‘verse of which is The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth. It consists of the first ten stories; of the remaining five, four are not in any collection but can be found available online (The Replacement, White Charles, The Yellow Dressing Gown, To Die For Moonlight) while the fifth can be found in her short story collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves. While this review is only for the Bone Key, I want to help make it easy for the rest to be found because I enjoyed this collection greatly.
I nabbed the Bone Key off my shelf because I was very much in the mood for something vaguely lovecraftian, and I found that this collection scratched that itch nicely. Written as a tribute to Lovecraft and M.R. James, the stories aim to capture that unsettling air of creeping horror, but add to the mix a sense of consistent, ongoing character.
The titular Kyle Murchison Booth is a socially awkward, uncomfortable man, a rare book archivist with the Samuel Mathers Parrington museum (and I can only assume that Monette wanted us to recall that Samuel Mathers) who dislikes conversation, physical contact, and having any expectations placed on him whatsoever, while he likes, mostly, books and being left largely alone. The first story begins with a queer take on a story like Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolf Carter, where the timid protagonist is dragged along by the stronger willpower of his more charismatic friend. By making Booth gay and the one-sided tension between the two characters homoromantic, Monette launches into a strong start at establishing a character-first take on the discomfiting terror of the genre.
Booth as a character has a lot of appeal to me—he’s neurotic and anxious and can barely get a full sentence out, but these things aren’t done for the sake of an exaggerated persona but are instead the product of a man who was emotionally abused and bullied through most of his life, and for whom every conversation is a potential trap. His mental voice is rich and full of intelligent metaphors; he just chokes on the words on the way out. I find him quite charming.
Another reviewer on goodreads noted that while none of the individual stories were 5/5, the collection as a whole was, and I have to agree. Now, I’d rate most of the individual stories quite highly, but the real charm of the collection is seeing Booth grow, his terrifying experiences snowball, and his acquaintances return with the past between them still important. Ratcliffe’s offer to go to coffee with Booth “in celebration of the fact that we are no longer fourteen” absolutely sticks with me as so much of the underlying significance of these stories—that the people in them have a life beyond those horrible moments (assuming, at least, that they survive). And then, as a collection, this satisfied the desire for my wanting all kinds of paranormal creeps. Ghosts, vengeful and otherwise; strange eldritch horrors in the woods; incubi; the horror in the walls… Something for everyone, and deeply satisfying.
I look forward to when Monette writes the next Booth story and I assure you I’ll do my best to be one of its first readers.