Thursday 29 September 2016

Slade House by David Mitchell - Clever bone-chiller for Halloween time

Fiction: Slade House, David Mitchell, Sceptre, hdbk, 233 pages, €17.99

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Clunky: Slade House isn’t in the same league as most of Mitchell’s other books
Clunky: Slade House isn’t in the same league as most of Mitchell’s other books
Slade House

David Mitchell resisted going on Twitter for years, so it's ironic that his new book was born there. Slade House began as a short story, published on the social-media site as part of promotion for last year's blockbuster The Bone Clocks.

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The Right Sort was a spin-off from Bone Clocks - expanding the fictional universe, telling a new story within it, capturing some of the spooky/dreamlike atmosphere of the "main" narrative.

Slade House continues the exercise, and the engagement with Twitter. The author (or his publisher) even set up an account for Bombadil, a pivotal figure from the book's final section.

A Twitter novel: yes, I find those words terrifying and depressing, too. But don't worry, this isn't some lazy attempt at riding social media's coat-tails, or cynical marketing exercise. And Mitchell - English-born, long-time Cork resident - is far too talented to produce something sub-par.

Having said that, Slade House isn't his greatest book. It's not great at all. It's short, slight, insubstantial, sometimes quite silly. There's little of the depth or emotional power of previous books. But for all that, it's enjoyable; I rattled through the book in one sitting.

It's told, as per standard Mitchell practice, using separate but connected stories (five in this case).

We begin in 1979, approaching Halloween, then skip forward each chapter to the same time of year, nine years later. The final piece takes place, rather cleverly, on Halloween 2015 - in other words, today.

The novella reintroduces us to the Anchorites: Bone Clocks' villains, who achieve immortality through consuming the souls of certain, "engifted" people. In this case, the baddies are creepy-beautiful twins Norah and Jonah Grayer; their first victim is young Nathan Bishop. They live in Slade House, which doesn't exist anymore on this plane of space-time, and use an orison - a sort of psycho-spiritual hallucination - to lull the mortal into their lair, where they're fed a chemical which loosens soul from body. Then it's feeding time for Jonah and Norah.

The dastardly pair continue their periodic reign of terror for several decades… until one Iris Marinus-Fenby arrives at Slade House. Mitchell fans will recognise the first part of that surname, and know that, for once, the Grayers might be messing with the wrong person.

You could describe Slade House as a bagatelle, really; a tasty morsel between main courses. It's not on a par with truly great Mitchell books like Cloud Atlas, number9dream…oh, all of them except for the final third of Bone Clocks.

It's also pretty clunky in places, especially the "info dump" parts, where Norah and Jonah tell each other what they've just done, and how, and why; this is for readers' benefit, of course.

It's surprising that a prose stylist of Mitchell's easy brilliance didn't find a smoother, more finessed way of filling in the backstory. (And, dare I say it, a debut writer probably would have had those parts heavily edited.)

Still: maybe my expectation levels were too high. Of itself, Slade House is a perfectly serviceable horror story, with a clever blend of creepiness, thrills and humour. Just the ticket for Halloween, says you.

On the other hand, he's so very talented that you can't help feeling, if not disappointed, certainly underwhelmed.

Hopefully this is the end of Mitchell's dalliance with soul-sucking immortals, and he'll return to more grown-up themes… and the superb standards he's set himself.

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