Short sharp shocks from nasty little haunted house tale
Review: Val Nolan
David Mitchell is, in many ways, like the initial protagonist of his latest spooky offering: an immense imagination in a world where mould-breakers and genre-benders are too often told that “you have to act normal. Can you do that, please?”. Thankfully, however, Mitchell seldom limits himself to the normality of realism alone. It is in fact his great strength as a novelist that he so readily marries masterful prose to big ideas such as the sentient satellite of Ghostwritten (1999), the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas (2004), or the vast battle between good and evil which provides the backdrop to The Bone Clocks (2014).
In Slade House, set within the world of that latter novel, one finds Mitchell very much at play. Here he gives us a grand old home “that only blurs into existence one night every nine years”, a building “like a board game designed by M.C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever”. It is a classic haunted house inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer, sibling “soul vampires” who prey on lonely, isolated people.
The author’s signature technique of constructing longer works from interlinked stories here results in five novellas set across forty years. As they progress, we meet a young boy in the 1970s, a racist detective in the late 1980s, a 90s college student participating in a paranormal field trip, her reporter sister searching her out a decade later, and, finally, the clever, cruel Norah Grayer of the present day.
In a microcosm of how Slade House itself fits into what Mitchell calls his “Übernovel” – the interconnected characters and motifs from across his published writing – past characters blur into each subsequent story as the Grayer’s victims pass messages from one generation to the next. In this way they themselves become the true phantoms of this inside-out ghost story, for Norah and Jonah, despite their power, are ultimately mortal and in many ways are the ones who are really being haunted here.
While the bickering rivalry of the Grayers showcases the author’s skill at creating well-defined characters, the writing here is, on the whole, a little less thrillingly sharp than in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, that is appropriate as Slade House is dessert to that novel’s rich, multi-course meal and is unashamedly a work of genre drawing on horror and fantasy in equal measure. Those who appreciate “something a bit like The Da Vinci Code” will relish talk of “atemporals”, “psychosoterica”, “reality bubbles”, and so on (indeed, it is in these latter stretches that the novel’s relationship to The Bone Clocks is most clearly spelled out) though a straight literary audience may find such occult bric-à-brac to be more challenging. On the other hand, there is still a considerable amount for such readers to enjoy in Mitchell’s evocative and endlessly inventive imagery.
That said, to draw too firm a line between the speculative and literary facets of Mitchell’s work is to do a disservice to one of the great contemporary novelists in these islands. For though his fiction is frequently structured around partitions and section breaks, his real strength lies in his willingness to bring together literary style with the endless possibilities of genre writing. It is an aspect of his work which the brief, often quite nasty Slade House provides a frighteningly effective example of.
Other posts you may enjoy:
- ‘The Horrorstör… The Horrorstör…’: My review of Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix.
- ‘Subversive Critique of the Established Order’: My Irish Examiner review of Hugh Howey’s novel Wool.