The main feeling I took away from Slade House is that David Mitchell is having a lot of fun. And by doing so, the reader also has a lot of fun. Slade House is a tongue-in-cheek horror, to be read in one big enjoyable sitting, which is what I did.
Slade House is a whole lot shorter than Mitchell’s other novels, but it features his trademark differing timelines and stories. Each of the five sections of Slade House is set at nine-year intervals, starting in 1979 and ending in 2015 and features a visitor to the eponymous house, accessed by a ‘small black iron door’ located down a narrow alleyway in a southern town in England.
In 1979, 13-year old Nathan Bishop, a boy with few friends and possibly on the autistic spectrum, is visiting Slade House with his mother to attend a musical evening. He has taken Valium to calm himself down, but is the drugs causing him to see strange things, or is it Slade House itself?
Fast-forward to 1988 and misogynistic hard-drinking cop Gordon Edwards is investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mother but finds himself sexually drawn to the attractive widow who now lives in Slade House.
Nine-years later it is clear that there is something strange about Slade House – the fact that it doesn’t appear maps and was supposedly blitzed in 1940 – which has led a student group from the Paranormal Society to decide to do some investigating, only to end up at the strangest of house parties.
In 2006, the sister of one of those students makes her own investigations into this strange and spooky house.
As with most of his novels, Mitchell plays with connected stories to create a very particular take on the traditional haunted house story. As chapter layers upon chapter, the reader is introduced to Norah and Jonah Grayer, the actual residents of Slade House – twins vampires of sorts who, every nine years, lure their prey to their illusory home in order to feast on their souls and maintain their immortality.
The Grayers are capable of taking on different human forms, and can construct elaborate dream worlds where the victim experiences the one thing that is missing in their everyday lives. Friendship, romance or acceptance. There is something distinctly unsettling about not knowing what is really happening or what is conjured by the twins, for both the characters and the readers.
Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever
It’s a slightly ridiculous premise, made relatable and ultimately believable by Mitchell’s rich charaterisation, canny use of horror fiction tropes and delicious black humour.
Despite the brevity, each character is fully realised – even the evil twins – allowing us to invest in the story no matter how fantastical. We come to care about each of these victims – Nathan is bullied, even by his own mother; Gordon is completely lacking in self-awareness and Sally feels like she can never fit in or be loved. The otherworldly twins offer each of their victims a glimpse of how life could have been for them, before, quite literally, sucking out their souls.
People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.
In every story there is the hope that the victim might escape, but as the dread builds, their fates are sealed and their souls are lost. In a horrifying twist, a part of each victim remains forever within the house, trying to warn the next against the terror to come.
The terror, when it comes is incredibly satisfying. The victims are all under the influence of some drug or other – drink, Valium, weed – leading to a hallucinatory sense of confusion and the false hope that what they are experiencing is drug-induced, rather than actual reality. Mitchell is incredibly skilled at maintaining a sense of dread and drawing out the making the inevitable still seem shocking.
But the idea that you can no longer trust your mind, that’s just about the most frightening thing there is. When you mess around with proportion or symmetry, or when doubt is injected into your perception of the laws of physics, your mind ceases to be a refuge. Your mind is no longer a safe house.
Slade House began life as a short story on Mitchell’s Twitter account and is actually a sequel or add on to his previous novel The Bone Clocks – typically the one Mitchell I haven’t read. There are presumably references and nods to this work that I missed, but that doesn’t take away from the sheer enjoyment that is to be had with Slade House.
Mitchell’s prose, as is to be expected, is top-notch, using the occasional laugh to bring much needed relief, even if we know it will be fleeting. Slade House is a gleeful book – cruel and sinister in the best way possible and a very satisfying R.I.P Challenge read.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!