My second October book – “Slade House” by David Mitchell – is a very different haunted house story from my previous choice (“Frost Hollow Hall”). I know this recommendation is going to cause me some problems. The first of these is that there are two well known British writers called David Mitchell. Just to be clear, “Slade House” is not by bearded comedian David Mitchell (who always makes me laugh) but by the David Mitchell who grew up in my own home county of Worcestershire and is best known as the author of “Cloud Atlas”. “Slade House” was published in 2015 and is available in paperback (though the hardback cover is creepier) or as an ebook. My next problem is that the unusual structure of David Mitchell’s novels tends to make their plots rather hard to summarize but here goes…
“Slade House” is set in London and tells the stories of five visitors to a house that shouldn’t exist. During World War II Slade House was bombed to rubble and yet every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, somebody finds a small iron door in a wall in Slade Alley. Through it they’ll discover an idyllic garden and a beautiful old house. Once they are inside the house, it is unlikely that they will ever be seen again. In 1979, schoolboy Nathan Bishop is invited to Slade House with his musician mother. In 1988 the house is investigated by Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds and in 1997 by student Sally and her friends in a university Paranormal Society. In 2006 journalist Freya Timms tries to discover the truth about her sister Sally’s disappearance while in 2015 a doctor called Iris Marinus-Fenby is lured through the iron door. All of these people have something in common but only one of them knows what it is.
In the section about Freya, she sets out to interview an old man who is probably a lunatic but who might hold the key to the Slade Alley mystery. She is told an extraordinary story involving a pair of twins with a telepathic link, an occult master of “the Shaded Way” who lived in a secret valley in Algeria, the journey which souls take when they cross “the Dusk between life and the Blank Sea”, and beings known as Atemporals who can create spaces which are immune to time and survive by draining people of their psychovoltage. Freya is being lied to, but not in the way that she thinks. Visitors to Slade House are doomed to learn about how vulnerable and how resilient human souls can be.
The next problem on my list is that David Mitchell is what we’d call in Britain a “Marmite author” – someone you either love or hate. I’m sorry I don’t know what the equivalent term is in other countries; perhaps somebody can enlighten me? I manage to both love and hate Mitchell, often in the course of the same book. At some moments, I think he’s the most profound of writers and at others, the most pretentious. Even when I hate Mitchell’s work I never find it boring and I do think that he often gets a raw deal from professional critics. Reviewers of literary fiction don’t like it when someone they regard as a “serious writer” strays into the realms of Science Fiction or Fantasy (see my April, 2015 post on Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”). Mitchell’s novels are often regarded as somewhere on a scale between difficult and incomprehensible but I’m confident that the super-smart Followers of this blog can cope. Fantasy readers are used to large cast lists and complex time-bending plots.
As well as being a “Marmite author”, Mitchell is a “Magpie author” (feel free to substitute an equivalent bird). He snatches up bits and pieces from myth and folklore, science and philosophy, and a wide range of genre fiction and then puts them together in unexpected ways. The opening chapter of “Slade House” deliberately echoes H.G.Wells’ famous short story “The Door in the Wall”, which features a child discovering “A door leading through a real wall to immortal realities.” Wells’ story is beautiful and sad but not dark. Mitchell’s version rapidly becomes very dark indeed when young Nathan finds a portrait of himself inside Slade House – a portrait with no eyes. As innocents suffer and predators triumph, the novel takes on the tone of a Horror story.
It can also count as a Ghost Story, since Slade House is haunted by remnants of its victims. Contrary to most Ghost Stories, the apparitions are there to warn not threaten. The innocent dead are contrasted with the greediness of souls who will do anything to cling on to life. An overarching plotline about two battling groups of immortals, which also featured in Mitchell’s previous novel “The Bone Clocks” (2014), could come straight out of many a Young Adult Fantasy novel. It is ingeniously worked out but not particularly original. So there is my fourth problem, how do I persuade you that “Slade House” is still worth a try?
Well, you might find it fun to pit your wits against Mitchell as he tries to mislead and wrong-foot his readers. You may think that you already know how this good versus evil plot is going to work out but you need to stay alert and look out for repeated incidents or details which may be more significant than they seem. Just to give you fair warning, my synopsis contains a similar piece of misdirection. In “Slade House” Mitchell makes use of one of the traditional rules which are supposed to govern interactions between humans and supernatural beings. See if you can spot which one before it’s explained to an unlucky visitor to Slade Alley. Mitchell also springs surprises by making minor characters from one plot strand (such as a passing window-cleaner) vitally important in another. Though he is famous (or infamous) for complex multi-stranded plots, I’d say that Mitchell’s greatest talent is for creating fully-rounded characters -both old and young, female and male. All the background details of his characters’ lives are very convincing, whatever period of history they come from.
In some of his books, Mitchell writes with equal confidence and vividness about everyday life in the near or far future. In “Slade House” he cleverly employs a standard motif from folklore and Fantasy fiction – the traveller ensnared by a false vision – to get to the heart of his characters. Each of the visitors to Slade House is presented with a scenario which seems to fulfil their secret hopes and longings. For example, nervous Nathan is reunited with his estranged father and shy Sally, cruelly nicknamed Oink, suddenly finds herself the most popular girl at a party. The betrayal of these hopes is heartbreaking but this isn’t a depressing novel because it also contains examples of great love and bravery. Unsympathetic characters redeem themselves in their final moments and even the two villains are allowed a genuine bond with each other. Mitchell is a writer who seems to have faith in the amazing potential of the human race.
One final problem – all of Mitchell’s novels are interconnected in strange and complex ways. A character, object or idea from one book may pop up in another and there are fictions within fictions. “Slade House” could be regarded as a sequel to “The Bone Clocks” but there isn’t a straightforward chronology in Mitchell’s fictional universe. Only in the final section of “Slade House” will it make any difference whether or not you’ve read “The Bone Clocks” and the experience is equally good both ways. So, if you’ve been nerving yourself up to try a David Mitchell novel, this relatively simple and short (233 pages) example might be the one to go for. Have a scary but safe Halloween…