CULTURE & ARTS

The Bottom Line: 'Slade House' By David Mitchell

David Mitchell has a Halloween present for us.

David Mitchell has become known for what he referred to in an interview with The Huffington Post last year as “episodic, polyphonic head-mangler[s].”

At the time, fresh off the publication of the doorstop century-spanner The Bone Clocks, he mentioned that his next book would be “quite short … a rest.” Just over a year later, that next book has arrived, and while Slade House is relatively short -- 238 small pages -- it remains head-mangling, at least for readers.

Not that I’m complaining.

A small, yellow, cloth-bound volume with a square cutout in the cover providing a glimpse of the Slade House floor plan, the book has the whimsically inviting presentation of a children’s story. It’s somehow both an appropriate cover and a misleading one, as the tale inside has the dreamy progression of a dark nursery tale -- "Hansel and Gretel" for modern Britain -- but the mind-bending complexity of Mitchell’s other novels of fantastical realism.

The novel opens in 1979, as clumsy young Nathan Bishop follows his mother, a musician struggling to support her son alone, to a musical soirée at Slade House. With such an opportunity to network with potential benefactors, Mrs. Bishop is distracted, leaving Nathan alone with Jonah, the young son of the house, in the lush garden outside. But as Nathan relaxes into the afternoon, Slade House and its grounds seem to shimmer and shift focus, like an immersive mirage. Increasingly disoriented and confused, Nathan goes looking for his mother, but it’s not that easy to get out.

As becomes clear, the house itself is an illusion, a vestige of a mansion destroyed in the blitz. Once every nine years, a portal to its shadow opens to the unlucky guest of the Grayers, and their disappearances are untraceable, the trail immediately cold.

Readers of Mitchell’s earlier novels, particularly The Bone Clocks, will recognize what’s happening: Norah and Jonah Grayer are predators, who’ve discovered they can capture a version of immortality by preying on the psychovoltage of naturally gifted people. Unfortunately for Nathan, he’s one of those people.

Nor is he the only unfortunate one Slade House shows us; again and again, we are plunged into the homely, deeply human lives of various targets, following their entire pathway into Slade House, hoping for their last-minute rescue.

All of which makes the book particularly suspenseful; though the dynamics at play may be familiar already to Mitchell’s readers, layers upon layers of tension stack within themselves in this spiraling novel, amping up the emotional toll. Each installment hurtles forward with the terror of capture and the mad hope for escape; the arc of the novel propels us toward a piecemeal understanding of the mysterious powers at work as more and more investigators, amateur and professional, attempt to solve the Slade House vanishings.

With seemingly endless misdirections and false doors, Slade House in many ways presents as a sophisticated horror story. Mitchell’s gift, however, has always been suffusing the fantastical with deep human feeling. Much of the dread of Slade House derives from how fully he imbues each character with unique humanity, compelling readers to perceive each victim as not a prop for the special effects, but as a relatable protagonist. A nerdy girl who joins a paranormal club to get closer to her crush, a loutish policeman, a hardheaded journalist with a tragic secret -- each feels as tangibly real as the next. Given the foggy forces threatening them, the solidity, even mundanity, of these characters creates an all-the-more unsettling juxtaposition.

Slade House lacks the ambitious scope of most of Mitchell’s novels, both narratively and intellectually; in comparison to books like The Bone Clocks it reads almost as a down-the-line genre story, focusing on the spooky mechanisms of a paranormal threat rather than its broader implications as a statement on, say, the value of human life and the arc of our history. For Mitchell fans, of course, Slade House will satisfy the craving for a more focused dive into the realm of The Shaded Way and psychosoterica, while for new readers it’s a relatively low-impact introduction to Mitchell’s many-doored alternative universe.

Taken on its own terms, however, it’s a tautly executed haunted-house tale -- and conveniently, just in time for Halloween.

The Bottom Line:

Tightly crafted and suspenseful yet warmly human, Slade House is the ultimate spooky nursery tale for adults.

What other reviewers think:

The New York Times: "Slade House is Mr. Mitchell’s shortest and most accessible novel to date, and you don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to comprehend it. Readers who come to this book first, however, will get only a slivery glimpse of this writer’s talent."

The San Francisco Chronicle: "Whether one has encountered The Bone Clocks or not, the chilly pleasures of Slade House are abundant, perfect for experiencing during dropping temperatures and shorter days."

Who wrote it?

David Mitchell is an award-winning novelist whose acclaimed books include Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, many of which are ingeniously interconnected through recurring characters and references. A version of the initial part of Slade House originally appeared as a Twitter story called “The Right Sort” in July 2014.

Who will read it?

Mitchell superfans, of course, but also anyone who likes a spooky read, especially one with a strong literary quality.

Opening lines:

“Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds. The sign shows three beagles cornering a fox. They’re about to pounce and rip it apart. A street sign underneath says WESTWOOD ROAD. Lords and ladies are supposed to be rich, so I was expecting swimming pools and Lamborghinis, but Westwood Road looks pretty normal to me.”

Notable passage:

“In the house, Mum’s playing warm-up arpeggios.

The dragonfly’s gone. ‘Do you have nightmares?’ I ask.

‘I have nightmares,’ says Jonah, ‘about running out of food.’

‘Go to bed with a packet of digestives,’ I tell him.

Jonah’s teeth are perfect, like the smiley kid with zero fillings off the Colgate advert. ‘Not that kind of food, Nathan.’

‘What other kinds of food are there?’ I ask.

A skylark’s Morse-coding from a far far far far star.

‘Food that makes you hungrier, the more of it you eat,’ says Jonah.”

 

Slade House
by David Mitchell
Random House, $26.00
Publishes Oct. 27, 2015

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.



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