Women in Horror Week: Necromantic Mysteries: The Ghostly Stories of Sarah Monette

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]everal years back, I did some work for a now-defunct magazine of historical/steampunk weird fiction called The Willows. The best bit of work I ever got to do for them was to commission a story from, and conduct an interview with, Sarah Monette. Though she’s probably better known for her fantasy novels and collaborations with Elizabeth Bear, I’d encountered Monette through her collection The Bone Key, which rapidly become one of my favorite books and a perennial re-read.

The Bone Key is subtitled “The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth,” which is also a decent summary of the book’s contents. Booth is the first-person narrator of all ten of the book’s stories. He’s a tall, brilliant, neurotic, white-haired museum archivist who, after an “unwilling foray into necromancy” in the book’s first story, finds himself plagued by “the dead and the monstrous.” Booth is a fantastic narrator and his voice, at once old-fashioned and modern, is one of the book’s many joys.

In her introduction to The Bone Key, Monette describes Booth and his world as “homages to and interrogations of the works of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.” They succeed admirably at both, though the reader who comes to The Bone Key expecting tales of the Mythos is bound to come away disappointed. Instead, what we have here are, again from Monette’s introduction, “old-fashioned ghost stories with, at times, a modern sensibility shining through.” While there are a lot of elements of Lovecraft in The Bone Key, particularly in its opening story “Bringing Helena

Back,” and the relationship therein between Booth and his ill-fated friend Augustus Blaine, the real debt in The Bone Key is to M.R. James. The cryptograms, the antiquarian heroes, the “pleasing terror.” For my money, there’s probably no one writing today who has better nailed and updated the Jamesian ghost story than Monette does here.

The stories in The Bone Key are not Monette’s only forays into the field of horror or the ghost story. There are a handful of others, published in a handful of places, many of them in her other collection of unthemed short stories, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves. Of especial note is “The Watcher in the Corners,” which is one of her finest ghost stories, and one of the best traditional ghost stories I’ve ever read, though it doesn’t feature Kyle Murchison Booth. One other story in Somewhere Beneath Those Waves does feature Booth, even though it isn’t collected in The Bone Key – “The World Without Sleep,” which Monette describes as her “Marxist Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath with vampires” (and if that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will).

The story that I bought from Monette for The Willows was another Booth story that isn’t in The Bone Key. It’s called “The Replacement” and concerns the family of a scholar, a family that is, of course, hiding a terrible secret. As far as I know, it’s never been reprinted and that issue of The Willows is still the only place you can read it. Which is a shame as, like all of Monette’s ghostly stories, it’s a classic.