No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, February 01, 2009

#5: The Bone Key -- Sarah Monette

I have a colleague who has dreamed of the fall of Troy once a year for the past thirty years. Always on the same date and always the same dream. He doesn't excavate in Troy -- never has -- and he says there isn't a power on Earth that could make him. He dreams, you see, that he is one of the women. (p. 134)

Ten linked short stories (published in various places, online and paper, between 2000 and 2006) featuring Kyle Murchison Booth, museum archivist. Booth is a tall gangling man in his thirties, white-haired due to a family curse, repressed, neurotic, solitary, brittle: following 'a foolish and unwilling foray into necromancy' (this may or may not be the episode described in the first story, 'Bringing Helena Back') he has become 'attractive to such [supernatural] things, as a magnet is attractive to iron.' (p. 243) In the tales collected here, he encounters ghosts, ghouls, a Lovecraftian terror amid the holly bushes, an incubus (Booth is gay, by preference if not practice), a curse, and a green glass paperweight that's been made a trap.

It's hard to tell exactly when or where the stories are set. The city, somewhere in New England, seems nameless; 'The Venebretti Necklace' seems to be set sometime in the 1950s, but could be later. I think that sense of rootlessness is Booth's: that he's deliberately distancing himself from the real world, that he prefers to work in the museum, bury himself in 17th-century pamphlets, uncover -- if he must -- dark secrets from other people's pasts.

Monette's prose is measured, subtle, refined: she doesn't revel in the horrors committed or suffered by her characters, or sensationalise sex and death. In the foreward she acknowledges a debt to, and admiration of, M R James, H P Lovecraft and Henry James: her stated aim, to combine 'the psychological and psychosexual focus of that other James' with the 'old-school horror of insinuation and nuance'. There's some lovely observation in here, from Booth's own shy stammering awkwardness to the convalescents who inhabit the Hotel Chrysalis, from the severe Gothic chilliness of Booth's relatives to the flat-eyed manservant who welcomes Booth to the house of the man who, as a boy, bullied him at school.

I like the prose: there's something missing, something more I want to read, and I don't know if it's that I read the stories one after another, and want the gaps between 'em filled, or whether I want more of Booth's backstory.

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