Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last month, we visited Asimov’s to see what was going on in the world of that venerable print publication. But, for this week, I’d like to talk about the newest Kyle Murchison Booth story by Sarah Monette: “To Die for Moonlight.” The novelette was recently published in Apex Magazine’s issue #50, alongside fiction by Rachel Swirsky (“Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings”) and Kelly Link (“The Constable of Abal”).
My history with the Kyle Murchison Booth stories has been fairly well recorded here—the second-ever Queering SFF post was a discussion of The Bone Key, Monette’s collection of Booth stories. (Side-note: hard to believe that was in 2010!) Suffice to say, I’m a fan of the style and the settings of these stories; they, and their protagonist, appeal to me. “To Die for Moonlight,” the newest installment, is an interesting addition to the mix.
Firstly, I’d like to say that I enjoyed the story, as one might expect. I perk up a bit each time I see a new Booth story in a magazine, and it’s been some while since I have seen one. That makes the surprise all the sweeter. I’m glad to see Apex featuring this novelette—and it makes perfect sense, as the magazine had, previously, reprinted another Booth story that I quite liked, “The Yellow Dressing Gown” (issue #31). To my eye, the Booth stories suit Apex in tone and style; they’re a fresh take on classical themes and narratives, invested in the handsomeness of the proper ghost story but also in the psychological experiences and lives of the characters. Eerie and often full of affect, Monette’s pieces surrounding this character do not fail to provoke a response in the reader—of fright, or of sympathy.
“To Die for Moonlight” is, as the title and the first lines imply, a werewolf story set in a world that previously has served as vehicle for mostly ghost stories (though not exclusively, by any means). It’s a tragic werewolf story, of course, because Booth rarely encounters things other than tragedy. His luck is poor and his own curse brings him frequently into contact with things best left unknown. In this case, the Booth family curse doesn’t do so supernaturally—his cousin sets him up to be invited by the family at Belle Lune—but it’s still a driving force behind his struggles.
I appreciated the brief, bleak insight into Booth’s opinions on relationships and his own isolation that this story gives. While it’s not trying to deliver the fearfully powerful punch of “Elegy for a Demon Lover” (featured in The Bone Key), it is nonetheless evocative. At one moment, as he’s about to try to rescue her suitor, Booth thinks of Annette:
She might have kissed my cheek then, but I turned away before I was sure that was her intention and did not let myself look at her again.
She could never be my bride.
His isolation is sharp to read, and sharper still to consider in the context of the other stories about him: his childhood, his frightful few experiences with love and companionship, et cetera. “To Die for Moonlight,” in that vein, introduces him to a vibrant young woman whom he’d like to help—and has him also decapitate and bury her, after her mother kills her to protect them both. It’s a plot that the reader sees coming—what else can it be, after all?—but that doesn’t take away the impact.
The gothic house, the cursed family, the deadly patriarchs: it’s all there, all of the trappings and structures that the reader will be familiar with. That familiarity, as in many of the Booth stories, allows Monette to do more work with character and relationships than would otherwise be possible. Tweaks to the formula become immediately obvious—such as the strong mother figure who has saved herself once and, finally, murders the whole family to end the curse instead of the visiting male narrator doing the deed—while the legible plot-arc allows the reader to become more invested in the theme and resonances instead of only the action as it progresses. Familiarity with a genre or a mode can be used creatively to redirect attention as well as to indulge in homage; Monette does both.
However, I will also say that “To Die for Moonlight,” despite its charms, isn’t going to take a spot in my top three Booth stories. Straightforward and unambiguous as it is, I found myself engaged but not unduly thrilled. I also suspect that much of the pleasure I found in this story is the result of my familiarity and existing entanglement with this world and character. The Booth family curse, for example, makes much more discomfiting showings in The Bone Key. Here, it is not much more than a motivational factor—but what makes it motivating is the reader’s knowledge, or foreknowledge, of it. For any reader not familiar with the world of Booth, I’d recommend picking up a copy of The Bone Key, and then coming back to this novelette for a fresh look.
Overall, “To Die for Moonlight” is a pleasantly dark story about werewolves and a family curse of lycanthropy; it does what one would expect it to do, retracing familiar paths with an unfamiliar eye—that of Mr. Booth. The psychological complexity that the Booth stories bring to an older mode of storytelling, those familiar narratives and well-trodden haunts, is what makes them favorites of mine to begin with. I appreciate revisiting the frightful and arcane through the sharp, contemporarily-inflected stories revolving around Booth and his conflicts—his losses, his fears, his needs. Booth is a complex and wounded character; his depth and emotive capability are what make for such intriguing stories. “To Die for Moonlight” continues in that vein, and satisfies a reader who wants another taste of that particular world and viewpoint.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.