Kyle Murchison Booth is a memorable character—described by his author, Sarah Monette, as “neurotic, erudite, insomniac”—who is also a man attracted to other men in a restrictive society that appears similar to Victorian/early post-Victorian England, but is set in America. The stories are inspired by M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft but go further into character psychology and development than either man’s work did. (The Booth stories are also frequently, deeply scary.) The Bone Key collects ten Booth stories that take place over an indeterminate period of time, at least a year or two, possibly longer.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. In fact, I’ve read it more than five times. I don’t want to say how many times because it’s a little dorky, but friends kept buying it, and then I would read it again to brush up to talk to them about it, and… Well. Things progressed. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s good, either: The Bone Key was nominated for the 2007 Shirley Jackson Award and several Booth stories have been included in Best-Of anthologies.
Though I’m talking about it for the purposes of gathering up queer SFF and trying to offer some kind of opinion on what I find, The Bone Key touches on so much more for me than just sexuality (a word I actually hesitate to ascribe to Booth, for reasons I’ll go into further down). For any reader who was ever the child sitting in the corner of a crowded room with a book, afraid to open their mouth for fear that what came out wouldn’t fit, unable to figure out how to interact with other people—Booth is a strike right to the heart. Monette deals with same-sex attraction in the context of severe and somewhat crippling anxiety disorders. For many readers, myself included, this isn’t such a stretch. That’s what makes Booth so endearing. (And the stories themselves are damned good, too, on a narrative level.)
Monette has a skilled hand at writing characters with layers of emotional trauma, which is one of the reasons I adore her books, and Booth is no exception. The underlying clues and back-stories are what tie the tales in the collection together cohesively. Without that thread of trauma to tie them together, the collection might not work as well as it does. It’s difficult to make a book out of short stories about the same character without the reader occasionally feeling disconnections between the stories themselves, or a lack of coherency, or a lack of forward motion. The Bone Key manages to keep its narrative pace both within the microcosms of the stories themselves and as a whole.
Again, I have to steer myself back on track—it’s easy to get lost in talking about the subtle terror of the stories or their narrative forms. There’s just so much going on, from gender politics to academia to PTSD to child abuse to mental illness… But to discuss Booth as a queer character, it’s necessary to focus the lens.
Sexuality in The Bone Key is an unspoken and unspeakable thing. Partly this is cultural—the social arrangements are not conducive to being “out of the closet”—but partly it’s about the narrating character’s view of attraction and romantic interaction. Booth doesn’t describe himself as gay or homosexual. There is no process of self-identification to latch onto in these stories, which problematizes and questions the idea of sexual identity as a whole. The one experience of romantic love he has had in his life as the book begins is with Blaine, a charismatic older man who took advantage of his friendship relentlessly and spent a good deal of time emotionally battering him in front of people. Love is not something that Booth has had pleasant experiences with, all the way from childhood and the deaths of his parents to Blaine’s mockery of his hopeless devotion.
If I had to pick a label for Booth, it would likely be something closer to asexual or uninterested than gay despite the fact that his experiences in the book, emotional and later physical, are both with men. Either way, it is a definition he will not make for himself aside from at one point saying he isn’t the marrying kind, which could support either supposition. Queer sexuality, too, isn’t just about gay/straight but all of the gradients in-between or outside of those boxes. Booth is a problematic, unreliable narrator for these stories, not just plot-wise but also in relation to his inner self and his history. The reader must be the one to put together the pieces and develop their own theories.
There are two stories that deal directly with Booth’s romantic experiences. The first story, “Bringing Helena Back,” tells the story of Blaine-and-Booth, as well as Blaine’s dead wife Helena. Booth assists him in summoning her back from the dead, but she kills him, leaving Booth to clean up the mess—and with the spell book. The end of the story, as he sits pondering the book and his notes, thinking about bringing Blaine back, is unbearably tense. “I wanted to bring Blaine back, just as he had wanted to bring Helena back. I wanted to see him again, to hear his voice. More importantly, I wanted to talk to him and to know that he was finally and forever hearing me, not the version of me that lived in his head. I wanted Blaine to love me as I had always loved him.”
He doesn’t give in to the temptation, but it’s his burning loneliness that leads him to it in the first place, along with the fact that he has effectively caused the death of the man he loved. This, too, is a theme for Booth that affects his attractions and identity: everyone he loves seems to die because of him, directly or indirectly. “Elegy for a Demon Lover” allows him to feel sexual desire and love for the first time, but in the end, he must “kill” the supernatural being that has fallen in love with him or risk being drained to death. He must slowly, slowly will his only lover out of existence to save himself, while the shadow haunts him and whispers pleas. I cry more or less every time I read this particular story because it is so wrenching. It contains the kind of unimaginable pain that even afflicts the reader—for Booth, it seems to be the defining moment of his failure to connect with anyone successfully.
The Bone Key is not a book concerned with happily ever after. Booth does not seem likely to achieve any kind of successful relationship, nor is he looking for one. That is why I would prefer to stick with the word “queer” to describe his sexuality, in so far as he acknowledges that he has one. Sex and love are other roads to pain for Booth. It has less to do with the gender of the people he tends toward in his few romantic experiences and more to do with his overlying psychological problems and a history of absolutely terrible consequences when he does allow a connection. That unhappy solution makes the book even stronger for me because it deals with the implications of being a real person with real problems. Love is too often presented as a fixer-upper that will patch over any emotional holes a character has, something that will “heal” them where nothing else could. Queer or straight, that treatment of romance rings hollow for me.
I strongly recommend The Bone Key not just for its queer sensibilities and the questions it raises about self-definition and sexual identity, but because it treats mental illness fairly and realistically. Trauma isn’t a “throw away” character trait. Rather, it is one that informs every single decision and thought that Booth has both on a romantic level and on a larger scale. Also, even ignoring the thematic stuff, the stories are gripping and twisty. It’s a good book no matter which way you’re looking at it.