Book review: Slade House by David Mitchell

David Mitchell. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
David Mitchell. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
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LATEST instalment of a 21st century epic is chilling – and the wait for the next almost unbearable

Slade House | by David Mitchell | Sceptre, £12.99

One of the joys of reading David Mitchell’s fiction is the deft way he places little references to his other works in each of the books. But it transpires that these were not clever intertextual winks to the reader, but in fact the scaffolding of an entire mythology.

At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival he revealed that all the books are set in the same universe, the one most comprehensively mapped in The Bone Clocks. That novel was about a war between two kinds of immortal “Atemporals”. The Horologists are naturally reincarnated with all their previous memories. The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk or the Shaded Way are predatory “soul vampires” who extend their lifespans by stealing the lives of others.

For the Horologists, who might find that at the end of living as a well-heeled doctor they come back as a Namibian farmer’s daughter, there is a vested interest in making society more equal. For the Anchorites, the ideal society is one where there are plenty of vulnerable people. The Bone Clocks featured a Horologist called Marinus, whom readers of Mitchell’s fiction will recognise as a major character in his novel set in 18th century Japan, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet.

He appears again – now as Dr Iris Marinus-Fenby – in Mitchell’s chilling and dazzling new book, Slade House. If The Bone Clocks was Mitchell’s Star Wars, then Slade House is his The Empire Strikes Back, an altogether darker, more disturbing tale. It provides Marinus with a more than worthy, and utterly implacable nemesis: he has already indicated a third volume will complete their story. I quite simply cannot wait.

Even though the Chapel of the Dusk was destroyed in the previous novel, there are other members of the Shaded Way still alive, ones who went “off-grid” as it were. Two such are the owners of Slade House, Norah and Jonah Grayer. Without giving too much away, they have found another way to cheat time: the only problem is that they have to recharge their sanctuary once ever nine years. Given the horrific behaviour of Abbot Enamoto in The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet and the ghastly activities of Hugo Lamb in The Bone Clocks you can be assured that this recharging means something very bad indeed for someone. The novel opens in 1979, narrated by the slightly obsessive-compulsive young Nathan Bishop, who has been invited to a private recital by Yehudi Menuhin at the residence of Lady Grayer.

We then jump to 1988 and DI Gordon Edmonds, a copper who could give Life On Mars’s Gene Hunt a run for his money, embarking on an affair.

By 1997 we are with Sally Timms, a member of the university’s paranormal society, who are investigating the mysterious happenings around Slade House. Sally’s sister takes up the narration for 2006, and by 2015 we reach the finale. It is an extended exercise in what Freud referred to as the Unheimlich – literally the “un-home-ly” and translated, losing something, as eerie.

Mitchell is known as a postmodernist author, and he deploys every kind of literary sleight-of-hand and unexpected twist in narrating Slade House. Quite quickly the reader realises two things. The Grayers can take different forms, and are adept at constructing elaborate dreams within dreams within dreams. There is something profoundly unsettling about never knowing who is actually who and whether a sequence is happening in reality or in one of the phantasmagoria conjured by the siblings. “Chinese puzzle box” does not do justice to the intricacy and ingenuity of the construction. As a contemporary haunted house story it can only be rivalled by Mark Danielewski’s House Of Leaves. Slade House began life as a series of Twitter tales, and yet it will contribute to one of the most epic works of the 21st century.

But the real skill of the book is in its emotional impact. Mitchell makes you care about each of the narrators. Nathan is bullied and humiliated by his snobbish mother. Gordon is pitifully lacking in self-awareness. Sally, with her unrequited passions and body image issues, is convincingly damaged; and her journalist sister, Freya, trying to do the right thing, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, manages to keep an innocence despite a carapace of cynicism.

This is a book in which the already broken are deliberately hurt further. Mitchell’s monsters wouldn’t be as effectively monstrous if it were not for the sheer relish they have in inflicting pain, their creativity at harm. When we finally realise who is to be Marinus’s great opponent, the Joker to his Batman, Missy to his Doctor, we also realise that character’s animus is solely motivated by having lost something they genuinely and truly love.

For a short novel, this has more gasps than most blockbusters: the number of times I found myself mentally saying “oh no, oh no, oh no” was remarkable. It is also encouraging to see horror as a genre flexing its more literary muscles. Mitchell’s prose, as always, sings and he uses humour both to provide relief and to heighten the darkness: a character provides a moment of levity and yet the reader knows that this is no time for jokes.

Slade House is nasty, sinister, cruel and shocking, and I mean every one of those adjectives as a wholehearted compliment. It is a novel that does what only the horror novel can do exceptionally: make the reader feel unsafe.