The Bone Key by Sarah Monette is a collection of ten necromantic mysteries featuring one central main character, a museum archivist who becomes involved with the supernatural. In the introduction, Monette states that these stories are a tribute to two authors she very much admires, H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. In spite of her love for their work, she did find them lacking in character development and feminism so she wrote some stories in the same vein but remedying these shortcomings. Since I have read neither Lovecraft nor James, I cannot say if she achieved that goal. However, the stories are well-written and atmospheric with a rather unusual main protagonist.
All the short stories in this book follow the adventures of one man – the shy, awkward, bookish Kyle Murchison Booth. In the opening story “Bringing Helena Back,” Booth (who usually goes by his last name instead of his first name) becomes involved in an old friend’s quest to resurrect his wife and becomes a magnet for strange events involving everything from ghosts to incubi afterward. Instead of going through each story individually, I will just discuss a couple of my favorites.
One of the most haunting stories was “Wait for Me” which made me fear mirrors more than the creepy museum (if this book convinced me of anything, it’s that I never, ever want to be alone in a museum at night). In this tale, Booth comes into possession of a poet’s diaries that were donated to the museum upon her death. Booth and a coworker went to collect them from the remaining members of the Stapleton family, and then Booth forgot all about them until he cannot sleep one night (as happens to him often). During this particular bout of insomnia, Booth goes to his office to sort through some papers and comes across a pamphlet entitled “Of Spirits and mirrours”:
Instantly, and with a force like being hit by a bolt of lightning, I remembered Miss Stapleton, lying on the floor of that bedroom saying, The girl in the mirror. The girl with no eyes.
The pamphlet discusses how eyeless spirits appear in mirrors to do the work of the devil, which makes Booth question some of the strange occurrences in the Stapleton house, including the incident in which they found Miss Stapleton pinned under a vanity mirror. Booth promptly scours the diaries of Mildred Truelove Stapleton and discovers the dark story of a dead girl whose cries of “Wait for me!” can still be heard.
My other favorite story is the titular “The Bone Key” in which Booth receives a letter from a lawyer claiming he knew his mother, who died along with Booth’s father when he was a young boy. When Booth meets the lawyer, it turns out he actually almost married Booth’s mother and knows many details of his family’s past that Booth was never told – including the curse that killed his father.
The main reason I read this book was that I love Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinth series. Although I enjoyed The Bone Key, I did not think it was nearly as wonderful as her other books, but that is most likely due to my personal preference for novels over short stories and fantasy over horror (even if it’s more psychological horror like this book than gory and icky horror). It was very well-written and it did have some similarities to The Doctrine of Labyrinth in that it was somewhat slow-paced and atmospheric. There was emphasis on character development and I really liked Booth, but he was not as vivid as either Felix or Mildmay in The Doctrine of Labyrinth though he was very sympathetic. Of course, this was a much shorter work than even a single book in the aforementioned four book series so there was much less room for getting to know the main protagonist, but the fact is that Booth does not have a particularly vivid personality.
Each story is told from the perspective of Booth, a very withdrawn man who avoids contact with others as much as possible. When he does converse with other people, he tends to be very quiet and unsure of what to say to them. There are a few recurring characters he interacts with, particularly the people he works with at the museum, but there are none that he is particularly close to so it doesn’t have the same tension and drama as the Felix/Mildmay relationship. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I do think he is a rather well-written character – I personally just preferred reading about Felix and Mildmay and the city of Melusine.)
The Bone Key was enjoyable for its writing style and subtle creepiness. It was a good Halloween read and a book that I’m glad I read, but it was not as attuned to my personal taste as the other books I have read by Sarah Monette.
Where I got my reading copy: After it languished on my wish list for a while, a friend (and fellow fan of Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinth series) sent it to me for my birthday.