Pardon my enthusiasm but the master plotter and literary magician has done it again, delivered a thrilling page-turning, mind-bending masterpiece, a novella with all the punch and humanity of his 600-page blockbusters. Slade House is a compact 240 pages, a one-night-stand of a book but still inhabiting the multi-dimensional universe of his previous star turns, Man Booker-nominated Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, and with several familiar cameo appearances. Die-hard David Mitchell fans will feel at home and new readers have the perfect primer, with a haunted house horror story added to his trademark non-genre genre of supernatural mystery fantasy science-fiction.
Slade House begins in October 1979 and ends ‘today’ in October 2015. Five narrators relate five stories set on the same Saturday at nine-yearly intervals. The stories are linked by the fact that all the characters lured into Slade House are lonely outsiders and are eventually, in the Mitchell manner, all connected. The first narrator is young Nathan Bishop who, with his nervy musician mum Rita, is on the way to a soirée organised by Lady Norah Grayer of Slade House. Nathan is probably autistic, doesn’t “feel well-knitted” and steals his mum’s valium as a “shock absorber”. On a rainy London October day in 1979 they enter Slade House through “a small black iron door, set into the brick wall…” and are overwhelmed by the sight of a summer garden “of toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies” and the house “at the top, old, blocky, stern and grey and half-smothered by fiery red ivy.” Lady Grayer escorts Rita inside to meet Yehudi Menuhin (“such a teddy bear”) and Nathan plays ‘fox and hound’ with her son Jonah. The garden starts to fade away, butterflies die and Nathan is full of “molten panic.” Is it the valium? He enters the house, climbs the stairs to the attic and spots his own eyeless portrait on the wall. Nathan vanishes. Once every nine years, we learn, Slade House opens to guests so that its soul-sucking owners can replenish their immortality with fresh supplies of soul-meat.
A battle of good and evil, a classic haunted house horror story but with some exquisite observations on the sanctity of life and the soul… profoundly moving.”
Every nine years a new set of characters turns up at The Fox and Hounds pub on Slade Alley curious about the Vanishings. In 1988 Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds of Thames Valley Police is called to Slade House by the new owner, widow Chloe Chetwynd, to investigate a faulty garden door. Goodbye Gordon! In 1997 oddball student Sally Timms joins her university Paranormal Society to meet boys, falls for “doomed-poet-looking Todd” and finds herself on a Parasoc field trip celebrating Hallowe’en inside Slade House. In 2004 Sally’s lesbian sister Freya narrates the fourth story. She’s an investigative journalist desperate to discover how her sister disappeared. Finally we meet geeky, skinny, hoodied Bombadil, (an escapee from Lord of the Rings?), who believes he has cracked the Slade House Vanishings using advanced digital detection tools. You may well already have made Bombadil’s creepy acquaintance on Twitter over the past few weeks (@I_Bombadil), enticing us into Slade House pre-publication with his back story. And in another twist, this novella is itself the extension of a 2,000-word Twitter story by David Mitchell last year.
Slade House is witty and funny. At no time does Mitchell’s abundant invention and meticulous structure detract from the sparkling narrative and linguistic fireworks. It is also disturbing, a battle of good and evil, a classic haunted house horror story but with some exquisite observations on the sanctity of life and the soul (“a translucent shimmering globe… the most beautiful thing I have ever seen”). His set pieces on nature and grief (“the silty stillness between the sucked-away sea and the tsunami’s roaring”) are profoundly moving. David Mitchells’ skill as a writer is to anchor his incredible events and people in the credible world. They listen to the news (“Douglas Hurd rejected criticism of the government’s ban on broadcast interviews with members of Irish Republican party, Sinn Féin” 1988); they take valium or use tape recorders; they quote from popular songs (there’s a whole Slade House playlist here) and they wear Pink Floyd T-shirts or Doc Martens. How easy it then becomes for David Mitchell to suck us into his incredible universe of psychovoltage, orisons, Entgifteds and Apertures. So, push open that little black door, enter the garden and walk up the stairs of Slade House. You won’t want to leave.
Rosie Goldsmith combines broadcasting and arts journalism with presenting and curating cultural events and festivals in Britain and overseas. She reviews fiction, lectures, is a media trainer, founder of the European Literature Network and editor of its website.
David Mitchell is the author of the novels Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks. He has won the John Llewellyn Rhys, Geoffrey Faber Memorial and South Bank Show Literature Prizes, and been nominated twice for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Slade House is published in hardback, eBook CD audio and audio download by Sceptre. Read more.
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Author portrait © Murdo Macleod