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This is an interconnected series of short stories that Monette wrote and published between 2000 and 2006. The Bone Key was originally published in 2007, and the second edition, with a new introduction, was published in 2011. Monette describes these as "old-fashioned ghost stories with, at times, a modern sensibility shining through." (p. 9) Monette dedicates her book to M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft and says in her introduction that she wanted "to take apart their story engines and put them back together with a fifth gear, as it were: the psychological and psychosexual focus of that other James." (p. 10) That other James would be would be Henry, author of the creepy horror novel, The Turn of the Screw.
Pinning down the precise time and setting for the stories is difficult. Though they sometimes feel like London—perhaps in the late 1800s...or 1920s...or 1940s, the references to cars, telephones, electricity, and to American place names put them in the U.S. sometime during the twentieth century. Part of the charm of the stories is their tendency to keep the reader slightly off balance, and this ambiguity of time and place assists in that endeavor.
The protagonist of each story is Kyle Murchison Booth, a shy, stammering, reclusive senior archivist of the Department of Rare Books at the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum in an American city on the East Coast, probably Boston. In the opening story, Booth participates in a necromantic fiasco that causes him to become a magnet for various ghosts, demons, and other otherworldly creatures. Booth's ancestry also plays a part in his ghostly attraction. Each story takes us through one of Booth's supernatural experiences in which he generally plays the pivotal role. Along the way, we learn the awful truths about the tragedies in Booth's past and we watch him cope with his present life by literally locking himself into his office at the museum or his dreary apartment, unhappy in his isolation, but even more uncomfortable in the presence of other people.
I enjoyed these stories of Booth's adventures, with their frequent literary allusions, spooky mood, and dry undertone. Booth is hard to get to know, but as we learn more and more about his horrendous childhood, we understand why he is what he is. If you like traditional ghost stories with a psychological twist, you'll probably enjoy this book.
These are the stories:
"Bringing Helena Back"
Booth unwillingly helps his domineering best friend discover and use a spell that brings back his dead wife. This experiment in necromancy is the beginning of Booth's magnetic attraction to ghostly spirits. In her "Story Notes," Monette traces this story back to H.P. Lovecraft's "Letter from a Teddy Bear on Veteran's Day."
"The Venebretti Necklace"
Booth and his female colleague, Miss Coburn, attempt to solve the mystery of a human skeleton Booth finds bricked up in a basement wall at the Parrington Museum. Monette says that the story "is based loosely on the Vittoria Corombona, John Webster's White Devil."
"The Bone Key"
Booth meets his late mother's horrible relatives and learns of the family curse that caused his hair to turn white when he was in his twenties. Here, we discover more details about the tragic deaths of Booth's parents. This story provides an explanation for the titular key.
"Wait for Me"
Here, Booth is sent to the home of the eminent poet, Mildred Truelove Stapleton, to take possession of her books and papers. Booth and his colleague soon discover that the house, and particularly the room in which the books are stored, have a dark and evil effect on everyone who enters. People argue for little or no reason; a vanity tumbles over on one of the inhabitants; a door locks itself. Once again, the ghost is attracted to Booth, and he must get to the bottom of it all. Click HERE to read this story in its entirety on Monette's website.
This story and the next are related to Booth's school days at Brockstone School (for boys), which "takes its name from M.R. James' story, "The Uncommon Prayer Book." Booth's sidekick in this story (John Pelham Ratcliffe) is the only one of Booth's schoolmates who appears to have successfully transcended his past schoolboy awkwardness and gone on to a relatively successful and comfortable adulthood. When Booth goes back to Brockstone for his fifteenth year reunion, he has a prescient nightmare, and Ratcliffe helps him solve the mystery it presents.
"The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox"
Wilcox was a school bully who picked on Booth all during their time together at Brockstone. He asks Booth to catalog the library of his late uncle, who has left his entire estate to Wilcox. Naturally enough, neither the library nor the holly trees of Hollyhill Estate are what they seem.
"Elegy for a Demon Lover"
Here, Booth is caught up in a tempestuous relationship with a handsome young man. This is the only story in which Booth has a close relationship with anyone, and unluckily for Booth, his lover turns out to be an incubus.
"The Wall of Clouds"
As a result of his debilitating experience in the previous story, Booth falls ill and is sent to a convalescent hotel where he slowly recovers. When a series of mysterious events disturbs the peaceful atmosphere, Booth finds the solution in the hotel library and helps a young woman regain her purpose in life.
"The Green Glass Paperweight"
For me, this was the best—and most frightening—story of the lot. Once again we delve into Booth's childhood, this time in the home of the Siddons, who raised Booth after his parents died. When old Eleazar Siddons dies, his will specifies that Booth can pick out one inexpensive item from the house to remember him by. When Booth finds the green glass paperweight that helped him get through his miserable younger years, he knows just what to do with it.
"Listening to the Bone"
Booth is spending a fine June day at the zoo when he is accosted by a revenant—a long-dead young boy who hands him a bone and says, "I'm lost, and I want to go home." (p. 265) What can Booth do but investigate the case and find the "home" for which the child is searching.
Click HERE to read Monette's sensuous and spooky poem, "The Vampire Smokes a Reflective Cigarette."