From my readings of his work, and about his life, M. R. James seems to have been a warm and gentle person, well-liked, with a joyous enthusiasm for his research, his writing, and other related interests (folklore and detective stories among them). I admire his ghost stories, his essays about ghost stories, and what I’ve read of his scholarly work, and I think that I would have liked him as a person.
I also get the impression that he was rather conservative in outlook. He didn’t seem particularly warm to the idea of women in academia. I think I would have liked him, but I’m not entirely sure that he would have approved of me.
So I find it interesting that some of James’ most prominent (and scholarly) fans are women: Rosemary Pardoe, certainly, and Jacqueline Simpson for the folkloric aspects of James’ work. And now we can add Sarah Monette.
Monette wrote the stories that are collected in The Bone Key as an homage to James and to H.P. Lovecraft, both of whom she discovered while in graduate school. Her dissertation was on “Horror and Haunting in Early Modern Revenge Tragedy” (think Hamlet). This is an interesting contrast, because a revenge narrative, ghost-related or not, is necessarily a narrative of human emotions: passion, anger, jealousy, obsession. And a common complaint about both James and Lovecraft is that their fiction is low on those emotional elements. Certainly, many of James’ characters are motivated by ambition or greed, and perhaps pride, of the scholarly kind. But when my friends and fellow readers tell me that they find James a bit flat, low on characterization, I can’t disagree. Similarly for Lovecraft. In addition, neither of these authors have anything to say about sex or sexuality, and very little to say about women.
Monette addresses these issues through her character Kyle Murchison Booth, the protagonist of these loosely linked stories, and through his colleagues at the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum. Booth is a senior archivist at the Parrington’s Department of Rare Books, in an unnamed (probably New England) American city, some time in the period between the two world wars. He’s from one of that city’s leading families, but is a loner, pathologically shy and socially awkward. He’s gay, but not sexually active (that shyness, again…). He’s scholarly, with a penchant for solving puzzles, and is probably a touch clairvoyant. The stories are as much about Booth navigating the world as they are about the hauntings and supernatural events in question.
It works, for me. Like Booth, I was the weird kid in school — I’ve been “the weird one” in adult life, too. I find mingling and socializing to be stressful and tiring activities. I’m perfectly happy sitting with my nose in a book, ignoring the other people in the room and being ignored by them. In other words — I can relate. I also liked the way that Booth felt driven to investigate mysterious happenings and to right old wrongs, even when doing so caused him discomfort.
I don’t share Monette’s enthusiasm for Lovecraft, so I can’t name the Lovecraftian elements of the tales (there is a grimoire known as The Book of Whispers that is mentioned in a couple of stories; I would guess that it’s a reference to the Necronomicon). I can spot the Jamesian aspects, though: the bibliophilia, the (usually) ill-fated necromancy, the way that the narratives of the hauntings are often retrospectively told, pieced together from passages of old manuscripts or documents. I personally like this last aspect of James’ stories; I get the sort of scholarly pleasure from it that I think he got. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, though, and experiencing the story through Booth’s eyes, rather than James’ more distant narrative voice, helps give the reader a bit more emotional connection with the story.
Monette also introduced a few good secondary characters, in particular Dr. Claudia Coburn, Booth’s independent and courageous colleague from the Parrington’s Archeology Department, and Booth’s old prep-school classmate, Dr. John Pelham Ratcliffe, who went from one of the picked-on weird kids in school to a prominent archeologist, sociable, polished and well-liked. He represents who Booth might have become, with a little more self-confidence.
My favorite stories: “Bringing Helena Back,” “Drowning Palmer,” and “Wait For Me.” “Bringing Helena Back” is the original Booth story, inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter”: a timid, nervous man goes along with a bad idea of his stronger-willed, persuasive friend, with disastrous results. I liked Monette’s story better than the original; it was better motivated, for one thing, especially as to why Booth with go along with his friend’s mad scheme.
“Drowning Palmer” is about the consequences of schoolboy bullying gone wrong, and a fairly frightening meditation on the pressure to go along with the crowd or with authority figures. Booth’s dream sequences in this story were for me some of the most chilling scenes in the book. “Wait for Me” is the story of a woman haunted both literally and figuratively by the death of her manipulative little sister, and by her relationship with her emotionally detached father.
“Elegy for a Demon Lover” is another standout, the dual to “Bringing Helena Back”: rather than Booth’s devotion accidentally destroying the one he loves, Booth must deliberately destroy his beloved in spite of his feelings. I also liked “The Venibretti Necklace,” mostly because it introduces Claudia Coburn, though the motive behind the murder at the heart of the story was nicely unusual.
The only story I didn’t care for was the title story, which concerns a Booth family curse. Booth is an interesting enough character as it is; I don’t need any explanation for his psychic sensitivities. The demon-consorting family history was just a bit much.
One of the things I like about James’ stories is that after I’ve read them, I want to look things up, to discover the folklore or religious movement or school of thought that his story referred to. Monette’s stories have a little of this, too: sprinkles of references here and there that get me curious. I now know what Laudianism is, and what are some of the folk magic uses for viburnum. Although I still don’t see why an incubus would smell of viburnum, given that it’s a plant that drives demons away (*)….
Overall, I enjoyed the collection. I found it to be more of the “light chills” variety of ghost story than the super-scary kind — which is just fine with me. I mentioned the dream sequences of “Drowning Palmer” already. The possibly-haunted basement of the Parrington in “The Venibretti Necklace” also gave me a little shiver, probably because I, too, have lights in my house that turn themselves off for no reason. The little boy in “Listening to Bone” was rather creepy, too.
So if you are looking for enjoyable, non-gory ghost stories, especially of the occult detective variety, check out The Bone Key.
The etching of books is Piles of Books by Hercules Seghers. Image: WikiArt
The painting is Head of a Drowned Man by Theodore Gericault, c. 1819. Image: WikiArt
The image of Viburnum prunifolium (Black Haw) is from Wikipedia