THE BONE KEY by Sarah Monette
Prime Books, 2011, 277 pages, 978-1-60701-290-0, Paperback, $14.95
We all have troubled relationships with authors whom we have read faithfully for a long time. On the one hand, they show us dizzying heights of joy and make us fall in love with their writing again and again. They pull us along from one book to the next, turning us into their greatest supporters and most avid fans. And yet, on the other hand, this devotion can be crippling because, for every new book we pick up, there is the agonizing question of whether or not our faith will be rewarded this time around. Looking at the unopened cover in a sort of panic, we ask ourselves, Will the prose style be the same? Will there be a character who seems real to me? Will I still be in love after this?
It pleases me to report that my latest foray into the works of Sarah Monette, an author who’s been one my favorites since I was midway through her excellent Melusine, did not disappoint on any of these counts, and my love remains firmly intact.
The Bone Key is a collection of short stories that focus on Kyle Murchison Booth, a museum researcher and reluctant medium, and the paranormal events that plague him at every turn. The structure of this book is one of the best things going for it. Chronicling Booth’s supernatural trials in a series of short stories rather than as one long narrative gives Monette a lot of room to play with horror tropes—everything from the haunted house to the demonic possession. It also gives each episode extra power because the format allows Monette to go straight into the stories that she wants to tell without having to worry about connecting them to an overarching plot. She gets the chance to hit a lot of different story types, and she makes each one deliciously disquieting in its own way.
Continuing in this vein, what I like the best about the format is how much fun all of it is. There is a playfulness to The Bone Key’s divided structure that I find really appealing. In some ways, it feels like reading a love letter to the writers Monette dedicated the book to, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, picking up on the frights of their works and touched by a similar old-timey charm. Playing Spot the Reference is a blast for me, but I also appreciate the way references are woven into the stories so that anyone who cares to notice can see them, yet they are not obtrusive to anyone who isn’t inclined towards allusions.
Of course, none of these things would matter if Booth weren’t a central character capable of supporting so many genre-heavy stories. Without his very human presence, The Bone Key would be a well-written but emotionally hollow send up of horror fiction’s past. For the scares to have maximum impact, the reader has to have someone they can connect with in the path of danger. Booth is great, both as an audience avatar and as a protagonist in his own right. He’s a man of few words (but not in the John Wayne sense) whose crippling sense of self-doubt and social awkwardness is felt across all of his stories. He may not be a hero to everyone’s taste, and I’ll admit that in the first story or two he can seem like a collection of quirks more than a person, but one of the most satisfying aspects of The Bone Key is following Booth from situation to situation and enjoying the gradual way that Monette reveals more about him and his backstory. By the time I met some of his shady relatives in “The Bone Key,” I was more concerned about how it would affect Booth than I was frightened of the relatives themselves, and let me just say, they were creepy.
The Bone Key is another book that’s sure to find its way onto my shelf of particular favorites. It’s not only a good way to pass some time, but it’s a good way to get a crash course in horror history, and an even better way to get to know a touching, outstanding character. And, I guess I should add, to get the heebie-jeebies.