Read The Bone Key Online

Authors: Sarah Monette,Lynne Thomas

Tags: #fantasy, #short story, #short stories

The Bone Key

The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth

Sarah Monette

Copyright © 2007, 2011 by Sarah Monette.

Introduction © 2011 by Lynne M. Thomas.

Cover art by Timothy Lantz.

Cover design by Telegraphy Harness.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

ISBN: 978-1-60701-323-5 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-60701-290-0 (trade paperback)


No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

For more information, contact Prime Books.

This book is dedicated to:

M.R. James

(1862 - 1936)


H.P. Lovecraft

(1890 - 1937)


This book is a series of interconnected short stories, written between 2000 and 2006. Their narrator/protagonist is a museum archivist—neurotic, erudite, insomniac—and he and his world are both homages to and interrogations of the works of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. They are, in other words, old-fashioned ghost stories with, at times, a modern sensibility shining through.

I came late to James and Lovecraft, but when I did discover them, in graduate school, I fell fast and hard. Here were writers who reveled in words and cherished scholarship, who at the same time were sincere and uncompromising in their desire to scare the living daylights out of their readers. “ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ ” is one of the scariest stories I have ever read, and I still can’t figure out how James accomplishes it. The beginning of that story is dry and mocking, simultaneously pedantic and satirizing pedantry, making no effort at concealing its own fictionality, and yet by the end, without ever visibly shifting tone, it has reduced its reader to a quivering wreck.

I like that in a guy.

I inhaled Lovecraft and James in wholesale lots and learned a tremendous amount from them about a particular kind of horror, the old school horror of insinuation and nuance. But I also discovered that there were things about James and Lovecraft that did not satisfy me, particularly their general indifference to character development. There are
in James and Lovecraft—Professor Parkins, the protagonist of “ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ ” being a good example—but these characters generally have little or no psychological depth, and they are static. They have neither the chance nor the capacity for change. Also, of course, James and Lovecraft ignore sex and sexuality with dogged determination and, well—let us say they are not feminists and leave it at that.

None of these omissions prevents me from loving their work, but the more I read James and Lovecraft, the more I found myself wanting 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

The Turn of the Screw
is, after all, also a magnificent work of horror.

Kyle Murchison Booth, my protagonist, emerged diffidently from the Lovecraft story “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” “The Statement” has more psychological complexity than most Lovecraft stories, with the weak, unstable narrator in thrall to his brilliant, reckless friend, and while that’s obviously a necessity for setting up the whammy at the end, it’s also intriguing in its own right. The first Booth story, “Bringing Helena Back,” essentially takes that dynamic and adds an overt homoerotic element and an unreliable narrator. I didn’t go into that story intending to make a series out of it, but in working out the background details to bring Booth and Blaine’s relationship to the necessary crisis point, I discovered that shy, awkward, geeky Booth had worlds within him far more vast and complex than the scope of one short story could encompass.

Booth is the most autobiographical of my protagonists. I was a shy, awkward, geeky child, and I have vivid memories of never knowing what to say, how to act, of learning to prefer being alone because it was safer than trying to interact with other children. I gave those remembered emotions to Booth, and the experience of writing him is thus both nerve-wracking and cathartic. If I’m doing it right, I bleed with him, and maybe the reader does, too.

Gentle Reader, allow me to introduce Kyle Murchison Booth. You will forgive him if he does not shake hands.

Sarah Monette


By Dr. L. Marie Howard, MSLIS, PhD

Senior Archivist, Department of Rare Books

Samuel Mather Parrington Museum

Kyle Murchison Booth Papers

Parrington Museum Archives

Mathilda Rushton Parrington Memorial Library Annex Collection ωRBSC.43

Linear feet of shelf space: 2.25

Number of Containers: 3

Collection Processor: Dr. L. Marie Howard

Biographical Sketch

Kyle Murchison Booth was educated at Brockstone School and Fulnaker College. He spent his career at the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum as a Senior Archivist in the Department of Rare Books. He was known as an exceptional archivist and an avid puzzle solver, despite a reputation for aloofness with his colleagues.

History and Scope of the Collection

In 2006, the Kyle Murchison Booth papers were discovered in the home of the Parrington Museum’s former Archeology Curator, the late Dr. Claudia Coburn, now in the possession of her grand-niece, Dr. Phoebe Smith, during extensive renovations. Dr. Smith then transferred the materials to Dr. Sarah Monette, who donated them to the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum in 2007. The Kyle Murchison Booth Papers consist primarily of correspondence, journals, and documentation from his tenure as Senior Archivist in the Department of Rare Books.

These stories were originally published in 2007 by Prime Books, the literary imprint of the Parrington Museum, under the auspices of Sarah Monette. Literary rights are retained by Dr. Monette. Any copyrights so stated in the materials will continue in force. Reproduction from this collection is provided at the discretion of Dr. Monette. Additional materials may be added to the collection at Dr. Monette’s discretion. The materials in this collection are available for research to qualified scholars as determined by the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum without restrictions.

Introduction to the Second Edition of
The Bone Key

As the current Senior Archivist in the Department of Rare Books at the Parrington, it is my great pleasure to discuss these delightful stories written by my predecessor. The first edition was produced before I took over as Senior Archivist, with a brief introduction provided by Dr. Monette. Since its publication, there has been a renewed interest in the Parrington, related to Booth’s literary foray. I have, therefore, been asked to provide a new introduction for the second edition.

Discovered in course of processing the archive, these stories are drawn from journal entries that stood out rather glaringly in contrast to the quotidian entries that surrounded them. They purport to document the supernatural as experienced by Mr. Booth. There is some controversy and scholarly contention as to their nature.

Steven Roman claims that Booth was clearly insane, based upon psychological profiling, and that these entries are evidence of Booth’s mental illness, rather than fantastical experiences.
The staff of the Parrington has vehemently denied this interpretation for years; Mr. Booth’s brief stay at a convalescent hospital was due to a lingering fever, as his medical records and his journal entries from that period clearly state.

Dr. Damian Taylor of Yale’s Thaumaturgy Department has argued that the fantastic events described within in these journal entries actually happened.
This article has led to a distressing number of visits from amateur paranormal investigators at the Parrington, including several camera crews that insisted upon disturbing numerous collections in our basement. I should note, at the behest of the Director of the Parrington, that we cooperated fully with the police in investigating the missing “ghost hunter” last year, and that the Parrington was cleared of any and all responsibility in the incident.

It is my contention that these journal entries must be fiction, due to their fantastical nature. Booth clearly had an interest in the popular literature of the fantastic, (his work hearkens back to the writings of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, as noted by Dr. Monette in the previous edition of these stories). As Fred Chappell notes, “the inclusion of fantasy invites, or even demands, that readers look beyond the face, to see through the necessary plethora of detail, and observe the play of theme against them, to hear the musical motifs as they interpenetrate”.
Booth’s lyrical motifs rely upon a whirling, anguished
danse macabre
, from which there is no escape.

The short fiction presented here is both disturbing and enlightening, reflecting Booth’s classical education and expertise in his field, as well as a near-pathological discomfort in dealing with other people, and a disturbing bent towards hysterical imaginings of the occult.
These stories are deftly rendered, matching the keen eye of a secretive observer of human nature with a startling postmodern tendency to insert himself into his own narratives.

The first story in the collection, “Bringing Helena Back,” is set during Booth’s earliest days at the Parrington. His expertise in solving puzzles, and translation, are called upon by an old school friend, Augustus Blaine, to help him bring his late wife back from the dead using a book that, according to my research, was last seen in the library of Henri III of France just before his assassination in 1589.
One hopes that Blaine’s horrific fate as a result of his occult dabbling serves as a deterrent to those who would insist that occult collections belong in the hands of private collectors, rather than in the Vatican’s collections of prohibited books.

Booth’s next story, “The Venebretti Necklace,” provides an entertaining theory on the still unsolved disappearance of the Venebretti Necklace from the Parrington Museum. The original owner of the Venebretti necklace, Maria Vittoria Venebretti, a self-styled witch, apparently cursed future owners, according to a 15th century tome on witch-hunting.
The necklace was originally acquired for the museum by Samuel Mather Parrington himself, but disappears from the Parrington’s records at the very end of the tenure of former director Havilland DeWitt.
In Booth’s version of the tale, the necklace turns up next to a skeleton, goes on display, and disappears once more under mysterious circumstances on what is, to Booth, the most frightening night of the museum’s year: the Museum Ball. This story is clearly drawn from Booth’s knowledge of Wolf-Ferrari’s opera
The Jewels of the Madonna
, which also centers upon a stolen necklace with mystical powers. Booth may have attended a performance of the opera when it played in New York; he has chosen to focus on the theft of the necklace, rather than its broader themes of incest and extramarital affairs.

“The Bone Key” draws upon Booth’s own biography. Beyond this fictional account of Booth’s parents’ deaths when he was thirteen, there is scant information about Booth’s extended family available (and even fewer images) despite the valiant efforts of amateur genealogists who have flocked to the Parrington since the initial publication of the story.
Bethany Thomas has posited that this story is Booth’s attempt to parse, and to punish himself for, his difficulty with familial and personal relations.
I would also submit that perhaps he drew some inspiration from Anna Maria Howitt’s story “The School of Life,” another story about an orphaned boy, raised by indifferent foster parents. “The School of Life” was initially serialized in
The Illustrated Magazine of Art
in 1853, and republished in book form by Ticknor & Fields in 1855.

“Wait for Me” is a meditation upon memory, poetry, and the diaspora of lost sisterhood. This is an especially imaginative story from Booth, who, as far as we can tell, abhorred the prospects of either having a sibling or expressing his feelings in verse. He clearly drew inspiration from Tennyson’s poetry. The line “Yet fear that passion may convulse / Thy judgement” from “Hail, Briton!” encapsulates Georgiana’s stubbornness, leading to her untimely death. Millie’s desperate attempts to escape Georgiana’s ghostly clutches, even while she still loves her sister, echo lines from “Tithon”: “Release me! so restore me to the ground / Thou seest all things; thou wilt see my grave / Thou wilt renew thy beauty with the morn.”

“Drowning Palmer” draws upon the pack behavior of juvenile delinquents in a school setting, likely drawing upon the groundbreaking psychological work of K.M. Banham Bridges, who notes that “Delinquency itself is socially inadequate adjustment on the part of the individual to difficult situations.”
The visceral intersection of memory and violence amongst adolescents is particularly well rendered through Booth’s ironic reference to Beowolf’s swimming prowess in his description of the boy’s drowning. The boy “sank slowly toward the bottom of the pool, still staring upwards at the dim, dusty light and the black wavering shapes of the boys.” This is a slick inversion of Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf’s for a swimming contest in the North Sea. Beowulf boasts that he has slain numerous water-monsters while carrying thirty suits of armor with him, finally dragging his opponent, Breca, back to shore, in his last contest.

The next two stories take on biblical themes. “The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox” inverts the biblical allusion to the holly plant—a symbol of Christmas, the Nativity, and Christ’s Passion—creating instead a sinister attempt at eternal life, reflected via Chaucer’s
Troilus and Criseyde
: “For he nyl falsen no wight, dar I seye / That wvol his herte al holly on hym leye” [for he for he deceives no one, I say, who his heart shall wholly on him lay]. (V, 1842-1846)
. “Elegy for a Demon Lover” is clearly Booth’s erotic homage to Belial in
Paradise Lost
, described as follows: “BELIAL came last, then whom a Spirit more lewd / Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love.” Relations between Booth and Belial’s cypher, Ivo Balthasar, are lovingly rendered with attention to detail.

“The Wall of Clouds,” framed as a tale of his own near-fatal illness brought on by extensive neurasthenia, expresses a deep discomfort with the growing industrialization of Booth’s time, much like that of the Luddites who destroy machinery in
, through his experiences with a sinister elevator.

“The Green Glass Paperweight,” a story of the disorganized attachment parenting of Booth’s foster parents, encapsulates adolescent rage into an inanimate object, causing it to glow like the eyes of Achilles in
The Illiad
, demonstrating Lévinas’ notion of alterity, or “otherness”.
Booth cannot escape the feeling of being “other,” even after the death of his foster father. “Listening to Bone” reminds us that stories return again and again, often as ghosts of their former selves. Mr. Garfield, the piano tuner in the story, like Cassandra, the prophetess who predicted the fall of Troy, is the only person who speaks the truth, even though no one else will believe it.

These chilling tales provide a lovely melding of a classical education with populist sensibilities that we frankly never suspected of quiet, aloof Mr. Booth. They are merely a selection of his work; it is our understanding from the processing of this group of papers that additional boxes of Mr. Booth’s papers were once housed in the basement of the Parrington, although they have yet to turn up. Our graduate student interns claim that they encounter rather uncanny sensations in our basement, and repeatedly get lost, in search of them. I have full confidence however, that once I take the task in hand myself, another group of these delightful stories of Mr. Booth’s will soon be discovered and made available to the public. We must, after all, maintain constant vigilance over the artifacts in our care. That was most strenuously expressed by Mr. Booth in the letter left behind for his successors, which was later passed to me.

Dr. L. Marie Howard, MSLIS, PhD

Senior Archivist

Department of Rare Books

Samuel Mather Parrington Museum

Other books

The Diviner by Melanie Rawn
El jardín colgante by Javier Calvo
La biblia satánica by Anton Szandor LaVey
The King's Cavalry by Paul Bannister
The Silver Lining by Jennifer Raygoza
Enslaved in Shadows by Tigris Eden Copyright 2016 - 2022