Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kyle Murchison Booth

"What do your friends call you?"
I bit back the instinctive honesty of, I have no friends, and said, "Booth, mostly."
-"The Venebretti Necklace"
I am, it seems, incapable of judging many writers well on first reading.  For every author I've loved from word one, there's someone whose work I at first thought was flawed, or (worse still) barely noticed at all.  So it was with Sarah Monette.  Sometime in late 2007 I was at a used book store in Providence, Rhode Island, and on the shelf was a copy of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for 2006.  (Too recent to be on most used book store shelves, but I think this was a review copy that had been dropped off there.)  It looked like new and was marked down from $21.95 to $7.50, so even though I had mixed feelings about the series I decided to buy it.

That was something of a fateful decision, as most of my current horror library has grown, directly or indirectly, out of that purchase.  And the number of authors I now admire who I first encountered within those pages is substantial: Christopher Harman, Stephen Gallagher, Margo Lanagan, Nicholas Royle, Kaaron Warren, Terry Dowling, M. Rickert, Stephen Volk, Stephen Graham Jones, Glen Hirshberg.  And, of course, Sarah Monette.

One of the horror selections in that book was "Drowning Palmer," about an introverted museum archivist whose unwilling attendance at a school reunion leads to a disturbing dream and a shocking discovery.  On first reading, I must confess, I had the same reaction to it that I often had to stories in YBF&H: it was well-crafted but not especially compelling or frightening.  But something about it must have satisfied me, because a few months later, during spring break, I found a copy of Monette's collection The Bone Key on the new books shelf at my library, and I decided to give it a whirl.

If you really want to see the god-awful paragraph long review I wrote back then, you can click here.  Even then, I didn't appreciate these stories as much as they deserved.  But before I witter on about me a little more, perhaps I ought to say something about the actual stories.
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Who is Kyle Murchison Booth?  If you want a very short answer, the epigraph to this essay isn't a bad choice.  But for the more detail-oriented: Booth is an archivist at the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum, in an unspecified American city, sometime in the early 20th century.  He's in his mid-thirties, over six feet tall, and his hair is entirely white.  He finds even basic social situations and interactions awkward.  And he has far more than his share of encounters with ghosts, demons, and other supernatural creatures.

Or, to give the answer from outside the fiction, here's Sarah Monette herself, in the introduction to The Bone Key:
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.
The key word there is "homage."  Which is a different thing from "pastiche."  These are not attempts to imitate the specific style of James or Lovecraft, but reinterpretations of their settings and narrative tropes.  So in "The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox," which I imagine had some basis in James's "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance," Booth goes to catalogue the library an old school acquaintance inherited from his uncle, and discovers something strange that links the library, the holly trees surrounding the estate, and the taciturn groundskeeper.  Where the more modern sensibility comes in is in Monette's deft handling of the awkward relationship between Booth and Wilcox, who were enemies at school and, lacking that, now have nothing much to say to each other.

But then Booth, solitary by nature, has nothing much to say to anyone.  After the death of his parents when he was twelve, he was raised by his father's business partner, a cruel man with a cruel wife who treated him as a waste of air and organs.  As an adult, he works, and sleeps when he can, and maintains cordial but distant relations with his co-workers, who respect his intellectual gifts but often don't know what to make of him.  He is, in other words, the sort of person a Lovecraftian or Jamesian protagonist might be, if they were fully-conceived characters rather than narrative markers.  (I don't mean that as a criticism of HPL or MRJ.)

Booth's narrative voice is likewise reminiscent of James and Lovecraft, though it lacks the light satirical touch of the former and the ponderous vocabulary of the latter.  He describes events and feeling directly, in a style that is formal but not florid, capable of dry humor (I treasure the portrait of the museum staff in "The Venebretti Necklace"), and easily readable in a way that too many homages to those writers are not.  Here's the opening to "Drowning Palmer:"
I had made the mistake of admitting that I had been at school with John Pelham Ratcliffe.  Ratcliffe was now an archaeologist of considerable repute-- although I remembered him as a pensive, unpleasant boy given to picking his nose in public-- and Dr. Starkweather, in consequence of a number of Ratcliffe's recent publications, had become determined to lure him away from the Midwestern museum which currently funded his excavations in Greece and the Levant.  Our Persian collection was (Dr. Starkweather felt and said, often and loudly) criminally inadequate, and Ratliffe was just the man to redress the imbalance.  Also, I believe there was a long-standing rivalry with the director of that Midwestern museum, but that was not a matter into which I cared to inquire.
I long to quote more, including the scene where the merciless Dr. Starkweather bullies Booth into attending his reunion and making a business proposition to Ratcliffe, but I suppose one paragraph is enough.

Why, then, did I not appreciate this story when I first read it?  Well, for one thing, I was 21, and still a beginner at recognizing and appreciating skillful, subtle horror fiction.  I was too focused on whether stories sent a shiver up my spine, which is a valuable commodity, but not the only one to which a story can aspire.  For another, I think the Booth stories work best once you've read a few of them, become familiar with their rhythms, and developed some sympathy for Booth himself.

Which is easy enough for me, since I am a lot like him.  I'm not a museum archivist or six feet tall, and my hair is falling out at twenty-five rather than going white.  But I know how it feels to have no idea what to say in a situation you know you ought to be able to navigate, to be intimidated by one's fellow students, to feel like someone to whom the entire world is naturally indifferent.  When I was in sixth grade gym class, we were playing some game where the teacher picked a student, and then the student selected a classmate to play next, or something like that.  Anyway, the point is that the teacher picked me, and asked rhetorically "Do you have any friends?"  But I answered honestly, with a quiet "No."  This was very amusing to my classmates.  You see why that quote from "The Venebretti Necklace" caught my attention.

But there is much more to admire in the Booth stories than their compact creation of a realistic, sympathetic awkward protagonist.  In her introduction to The Bone Key, Monette writes, "[the M.R. James tale] '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."  I know the feeling; despite multiple readings of James, and study of what critical literature exists on his craft, I still marvel at his ability to scare the living daylights out of me.  Whatever that gift may be, Sarah Monette has it too.

Over the past few days I've done a marathon (re)read of all the Booth stories that have been published, and this time around, nearly all of them gave me chills.  (A few didn't-- "Drowning Palmer" was one-- but they had other virtues, which I'll get to in a moment.)  From "Wait for Me" with its haunted mirrors to the building rage of "The Green Glass Paperweight," from the scrap-built creature of "White Charles" to the nightmare visions of "The Yellow Dressing Gown," Monette conjures up a wide range of supernatural horrors, some Jamesian, some Lovecraftian, some reflecting still other sensibilities.  Perhaps my favorite of the Booth stories, "The Wall of Clouds," is a novella in which Booth's time at a secluded convalescent hotel (the evocation of Booth's illness and resulting exhaustion, by the way, had me groaning in sympathy) brings him up against several different mysteries, which Monette weaves into a masterpiece of subtle horror.  By the time I finished the final story, I was so unsettled that my discomfort lingered after I'd put the book back on the shelf.  That's a rare occurrence indeed, and a sign of Monette's talent.

I can't neglect, either, the modern sensibility that makes the Booth stories something more than satisfying chillers.  "Bringing Helena Back," the earliest of them, paints in a very limited space the all-too-real picture of Booth's one friendship, if you can call his relationship with Augustus Blaine a friendship.  "The Bone Key" and "The Green Glass Paperweight" reveal more of Booth's tragic past, helping the reader understand how he came to be the man he is.  "Drowning Palmer" offers insight into childhood cruelty and lingering guilt, while "Elegy for a Demon Lover" explores the mutual pain of obsessive love. (Sometimes I amuse myself by imagining how James and Lovecraft would react if they were around to read that particular story.)  "Listening to Bone" evokes a response not so much for its child ghost as for the blind old man who has to face it.  "The Replacement" is a grim tale of a dutiful scholar's daughter and the sad dynamic of her family.  "White Charles" links the creature summoned by a long-dead alchemist to the underappreciated staff of the museum where Booth works, and reveals that not all monsters are malevolent.

And then there's "The World Without Sleep."  Nothing could have prepared me for this lovely dark fantasy, which I read for the first time last night, and which is unlike any of the other Booth stories.  It features a city populated by demi-angels, vampires, walking shadows, and goblins, reinventing all these creatures without losing the qualities that make the concepts so powerful.  As Booth's visit to the city progresses, his understanding of its power dynamics and moral structure gradually evolves, revealing a wonderfully complex and real system of mutual dependence.  And the goblins are a bit Cockney, which should be intolerably cute but is instead impossibly charming.

To date there are only fourteen published Booth stories.  That's a slim body of work on which to base a judgment, but it's enough for me to state confidently that Monette has mastered the traditional ghost story, modernizing some aspects of its sensibility while respecting its virtues.  The most conservative fans of the form may find some of their subtexts objectionable, but for those whose appreciation of literature isn't frozen circa 1936, the Booth stories are simply required reading.
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The first ten Booth stories were collected in The Bone Key, which is available secondhand and will have a second edition later this year.  The other four were published in various magazines; one was reprinted in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition.  Free online texts of various Booth stories can be found at these links: "Wait for Me," "The Replacement," and "White Charles."  And here are links to download podcast MP3 versions of some of them: "Elegy for a Demon Lover" (read by the author), "The Yellow Dressing Gown" (read by the author), and "White Charles" (read by Kate Baker).

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