I have just read David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’. It took me a day and I didn’t put it down. What a clever book! Again, no spoilers from me for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but there is a scarily weird place, Slade House, where things happen and have happened in the past, which the reader visits with readily suspended disbelief and held breath.We are propelled from one terrorised protagonist to the next with car-crash speed, but the journey is breath takingly enjoyable.
The novel is short: it is composed of five stories or novellas, set in different time periods, nine years apart. Slade House is a mysterious place, a huge mansion down a dark alley, accessed by an iron gate, and its residents are fascinating twins Norah and Jonah who lure their prey into the house with scary results.
David Mitchell is the master of the ability to show the reader every detail of a character without telling. His first narrator, Nathan, is a teenager who is obviously on the autistic spectrum and is charming and delightfully funny, although Mitchell allows the reader to discern the character’s individuality through anecdotes, such as tales of his teacher/ enabler getting him to practise reading people’s expressions, or his examples of semantic/ pragmatic errors, such as the brilliant story: ‘Our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter.’
In true ‘Psycho’ style, Mitchell builds up an intriguing hero and then disposes of him, and the reader doesn’t know whether Nathan has taken too much of his mother’s valium or if something horrendous has happened to him, but we are led to suspect the latter.
The second narrator, CID Gordon, is not so likeable. He is sexist, racist, a bit of a player and a manipulator, but the character is evoked without obvious exposition: details are filtered cleverly through action, dialogue and description, and the plot rolls forward as we wonder why Norah and Jonah seem to be still active as ghosts in Slade House and they frighten him witless when he is there ostensibly on a hot date.
Each novella develops the story’s intrigue and propels us through the possibilities, until the final climax in which they merge and there is an exciting conclusion.
I enjoyed the clever twists of this story and the way each novella’s character was plausible, written vividly and very quickly established with depth and idiosyncrasy. While the narrator is becoming a credible part of the reader’s experience, the parallel story of Norah and Jonah is tantalisingly present, but no solutions about them are made clear, so that the reader is constantly looking for clues and signals.
Mitchell makes it apparent to us that the twins are evil in nature, malevolent and capable of soul- sucking slaughter. Moments such as when we see Nathan’s portrait on the wall, in which he appears dressed in a bow tie and with facial blemishes, exactly as he was on that day, but with his eyes missing, are powerful symbols which hook the reader into the storyline and make us hang on for the next moment of suspense.
Mitchell writes well; his characters are captivating, his dialogue witty and his language exactly perfect. There is a small section where Nathan is in Rhodesia with his father, and the colours and characters are perfectly evoked and we are there with him; although he has taken valium, and we are never sure what is real and what is distorted, and Mitchell continues this brilliant confusion for the reader until the last section, leading us by the nose round twisting, turning, unexpected corners.
Vampires and ghosts have been done to death! Most writers, myself included, have dabbled in writing the supernatural dirt, evoking atmospheres bulging with haints, dybbuks, mulo, monsters, spirits and psychics. It’s fun to write but not always fun to read, unless the writer has the ability to create the credible and enable the reader to invest in outcomes.
Mitchell keeps us prickling with gooseflesh and all the time he is having fun with ‘Slade House’: he doesn’t expect us to take it seriously, but he is a slick dude of a writer who can mix in jokes about tropes, throw in some farce and a bit of spine tingling horror, and what emerges is a spell of magical reading which is a gift of pure enjoyment and impressive stylistic skill.
As readers, we are safe in Mitchell’s hands, we are safe within the genre but we are not safe in the sinister Slade House. His prose sings spells from the pages and we laugh, we cringe and we shiver. It is a skilful book and one which shocks and which entertains. ‘Slade House’ is a genre-bending horror tale and one I enjoyed more than I thought I could . Superb writing!