I may have to give up my long-held identity as someone who doesn’t enjoy reading horror, because I have really enjoyed some horror novels lately. David Mitchell’s latest, Slade House, is a sort of haunted house-slash-mystery story told over several decades, in several different voices, and it was delightful.
The book begins with a young boy, Nathan, who visits a house down narrow, twisting Slade Alley with his mother. The gate is set in the wall of the alley, and when he enters, he has the sense of entering a lovely, secret paradise of a place. He and his mother are fed and he meets another child, Jonah, a playmate and new friend for him. Their game of Fox and Hounds turns bizarre and unreal, but Nathan’s mother dismisses it as his imagination. She sends him up a set of stairs, into an attic room, and … and something bad happens. It does not end well for Nathan, you guys.
Nine years later, a London cop named Gordon is investigating a crime down Slade Alley. He enters the gate and meets an enticing woman. They start a relationship and, after a while, things end badly for him too.
And a pattern emerges. Slade House is drawing visitors in, enticing them with something they desire, trapping them there with horrific or lovely visions. The visitors don’t come out again and Slade House ceases to exist for another nine years, invisible and impossible in the walls of Slade Alley.
Discovering what — or who — is behind this trick is part of the fun of Slade House. I haven’t ever finished a David Mitchell book before, although I enjoy his prose style, because I find them meandering and disconnected. It takes too long for the story to pay off. Not so with this book! It’s such a compact novel — only about 150 pages — that the pleasure is not diluted by wondering where the plot is going, or if all of these recurring disappearances will add up to something.
Mitchell’s writing also shines here. His ability to inhabit different characters is lovely and uncanny. Each character is totally realized, with lots of detail and specific voice, which makes the tragedy of what happens to them hit harder. They have different ways of expressing their fear and grief when they are face with their own fates; I particularly appreciated Sally, the third victim, whose sensitivity and self-reflection were excruciating at the end. The villains of the tale are also written with fine detail; their malice and horror come to life in the illusions they create and in the unchanging attic room they inhabit. Each chapter is told from a different limited 3rd person perspective, which means that each character notices different things about the house and the attic room. It’s fascinating, as a writer, to watch Mitchell write the same scary scene in the attic several different times, to notice how he varies his description of the setting and the event.
Slade House is connected to Mitchell’s other works, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, which I know mostly from reading summaries and reviews of those works. It’s all part of Mitchell’s goal to link all of his books up in the same larger world. But you don’t have to have read those works to get Slade House; the explanation at the end of the book worked just fine for me. And it actually made me interested in going back and trying to finish them.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (a book I consider absolutely brilliant) showcased several of his trademark talents: the ability to fully inhabit a panoply of characters, a ventriloquist-like skill in shifting amidst a number of voices, and an ease with a variety of genre types, as he moved seamlessly through a series of sections that include a 19th Century adventure tale, a post-apocalyptic story, and a dystopia, amongst others. These talents are evident as well in his other often-lengthy novels, all of which form a sort of pan-universe, with several of his characters slipping stealthily out from the pages of one book and into the pages of another. This interconnected nature of his works, his tendency to play with structure, and the afore-mentioned size of most of his novels, has, I would hazard a guess, put off more than just Kate from dipping into his oeuvre. His newest work, however, entitled Slade House, comes in at a slim 232 pages (I’m guessing my pages are smaller than Kate’s 100-page version), and despite the fact that several of his usual suspects appear in its pages, this short novel serves as an excellent introduction to his larger world and his many authorial talents. I’d say it tells the reader, “Come on in, it’s all fine,” except it’s a haunted house story (actually five of them), and so no, it really isn’t all fine for those who “come on in.”
Structured as a series of five linked stories, the novel centers on the eponymous structure, which appears Brigadoon-like only every nine years. The first story is set in 1979, and we move on in almost-decade-long increments, following a relatively similar pattern. A character is somehow seduced/intrigued by the house or its owners, things swerve into the surreal for a few pages, and then. Well, as Kate says, it tends not to end well. If you’re thinking this sounds somewhat repetitive, or somewhat reductive in terms of a haunted house tale, you’d be right. Or at least, you would be in the hands of a lesser author. And Mitchell, as he’s shown time and again, is no such thing.
Mitchell’s strength as a genre writer isn’t what he brings new to the table (his dystopian or post-apocalyptic sections in Cloud Atlas for instance would be solidly familiar to fans of those genres), but the way in which he takes the standard tropes of the genre and elevates them to a higher reading pleasure through his wonderfully precise and original prose, his diamond-sharp characterization/sense of voice, and his often wryly warm sense of humor.
And so we open as Kate tells us with Nathan, a 13-year-old “oddity” of a boy who doesn’t quite fit in with his peers being dragged to Slade House by his mother for an afternoon visit. And as he has done in both Black Swan Green and The Bone Clocks, Mitchell shows himself a master at capturing the voice and thoughts of a young adolescent, especially the strange ones (“Maybe this is like having a friend”). But Mitchell is equally strong voicing a middle-aged and highly flawed cop, a somewhat younger lesbian reporter, or, perhaps most poignantly (I’m with Kate when she calls the end of this “excruciating”), an overweight university student.
Beyond the fully realized humanity of each of the main characters (OK, the villains not so much, Kate nails their description), the possibly repetitive nature of the work is leavened as well by the manner in which each story leaps ahead in time so each can become a miniature “period piece”, but even more so by the way they build upon one another, each time allowing the reader just a slightly larger bit of hope that this time a character may escape. Even if we know oh so painfully that, at least for the first half of the book, it wouldn’t make any sense that they do, not with all those pages left.
On another level, Slade House, despite its Haunted House trope and few number of pages, offers up some big ideas regarding souls, immortality, and the universal human desire to be seen and heard and loved. One could argue as well for a meta-fictional aspect to the book. But I don’t want to ruin what is after all the great fun of this novel — its vivid characters, its painful moments of epiphany just before defeat, its joy in the hoary old tropes of the genre (the evil portrait, the attic, the isolated house, etc.), the way the prose shifts in each story from crystal-clear description to a dream-like and surreal fog of language and imagery.
For Mitchell fans, this will be a joyfully quick return to everything they love about this author (and yes, they’ll see some familiar faces). As for those who have held off from reading him thanks to the length of his books or their interconnectedness, it’s true you won’t recognize some characters or some plot points like his readers will, but that will make no difference to your enjoyment of the book. Slade House stands fully independent and is a wholly accessible entry into his work. The door’s wide open, c’mon in. You’ll love it here. I promise. Really.
The enigmatic Slade House mysteriously appears every nine years for a day, like a sinister Brigadoon, accessible only to certain people. And those who visit it are never seen again. Some of the characters were particularly heart-wrenching, especially young Nathan, who is on the autistic spectrum, and Sally, the overweight young woman who is so hopeful and, at the same time, so desolate.
Although it seems at first like history is simply repeating itself every nine years, there are threads that tie each episode to the next, and a natural progression in the story line that moves the plot along and kept me tied to this book. Episodes that at first seem somewhat disconnected, if rather repetitive, begin to build on each other. Objects and characters creep in from prior episodes and echo prior appearances — a silver fox-head hairpin, a game of Fox and Hounds (distressingly apt) that also becomes a pub name — as well as from other Mitchell novels.
Like Kate, I’m not much of a horror reader, but occasionally I get tempted into it, this time because I enjoyed David Mitchell’s experimental and thought-provoking writing in Cloud Atlas so much. Slade House really sucked me in; I finished it in one day, a lot faster than I would’ve guessed at first, especially given my prior struggles with The Bone Clocks (which I put aside after about 75 pages when it failed to engage me). Slade House is much more accessible and easier to digest, not to mention far shorter. It works fine as a stand-alone read, although reading The Bone Clocks first would certainly give the reader a good deal of helpful background and context, since it’s set in the same universe. Readers of The Bone Clocks and other Mitchell novels will be rewarded with recurring characters, concepts and themes, such as Dr. Iris Marinus and the Horologists. I envy Bill’s familiarity with and love for The Bone Clocks.
Even without that background knowledge, however, there’s enough explanation in Slade House that a reader new to this universe isn’t left feeling stranded. There’s a great deal of info-dumping in the 4th episode, which isn’t entirely successful in feeling like a natural part of the storyline, but it does provide the basic, necessary information about this universe that Mitchell has created.
Mitchell playfully includes several tropes of the haunted house genre: the disturbing portraits (which, honestly, have no logical place in Slade House, other than to raise the anxiety level of the reader), a face in the window, a warning that goes unheeded, the feeling of utter helplessness, the villain who can’t resist the urge to Explain All to his victim. I think Mitchell was also making a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke with the quirkily named “Banjax,” the food or drink that the victims must voluntarily ingest for the villains to accomplish their purpose. But David Mitchell’s gift with prose puts Slade House a clear cut above most horror novels. It might even tempt me to give The Bone Clocks another shot.
Kate, Bill and Tadiana are gifted and reliable reviewers, but they have been remiss here, and it falls to me to issue a warning: Do not start Slade House on a day that you have other things planned. For instance, if you are in the USA, don’t start reading it on the day before Thanksgiving. Learn from my mistake, people.
Like the house itself, Slade House entices in the reader, and won’t let them go until the last page is turned. Fortunately, at 232 pages in the Random House hard copy, it is a book that can be read in one day.
The previous reviewers have laid out the plot. As Bill and Kate mentioned, in the hands of a less gifted (and hard-working) writer, these linked stories, set nine years apart, could seem repetitive, but the sections are joined in subtle ways, and as readers, we have more information than each main character does. Thus, the tension and suspense build for us. Mitchell also creates characters with the capacity to surprise us; we see, in Gordon, the bitter, cynical and selfish cop, an impulse of true gallantry in the Slade House attic, and the seemingly least likely character commits an act of genuine heroism.
Apart from the sheer I-can’t-put-it-down suspense of the book, Mitchell shares surprising moments of humanity. They happened, for me, when I least expected them. In one section, a character who is a twin ruminates on the nature of twin-ness:
Strangers are “They,” a lover is first a “You” and then a “We,” but Jonah is half an “I.”
I’ve never thought of twins that way before. It stopped me. It’s not the only place that characters have brief, off-handed moments that make me reconsider the nature of the world.
Slade House is a good short horror novel in its own right. For people getting ready to tackle The Bone Clocks, Slade House would be a good book to read first. It sets the stage and helps explain some of the unusual point of view choices Mitchell made in the longer work. Anyway, clear your calendar, and give Slade House a shot.