Immortality may be every living being’s dream; for David Mitchell, it’s his inspiration and muse. He wove his best-known work yet, Cloud Atlas, with the thread of a soul’s immortality across centuries. The hints were subtle, but pronounced enough.
In Slade House, Mitchell goes deeper and darker. More like down the dungeon than up the attic, even if it’s the attic which holds the secrets to all the mysterious happenings at Slade House. There are no hints; the sinister is in your face. And it’s not mere immortality that’s at play here. Mitchell brings out the mysteries of the atemporal in full force—the mysticism of occult practitioners in places like Algiers, seances, telepathy, orisons, astral projections—the works.
A dark alley in a small town close to London beckons a visitor every nine years. A small, hidden door opens to reveal too grand a house for the location. The garden is vast and resplendent, at least in 1979, when the first visitor arrives. Nathan Bishop is all of 13 years, and already topped up with enough valium to mistake the ‘theatre of the mind’ on play at Slade House as a side effect of the drug. He’s entirely clueless even when one of the Grayer twins—residents of the house—says: “Dinner is served. It’s warm, confused, afraid, it’s imbibed banjax, and it’s ready for filleting.”
Nine years later, a detective, Gordon Edmonds is met by an attractive widow at Slade House. After several appetising meals and a romp in bed with her, he is quick to dream of marrying the rich widow and a life of financial security. But a walk up the attic of the house reveals something else altogether.
By this time, the reader is completely intrigued, but Mitchell is having absolute fun. Because next, he brings in a whole gang from a paranormal society, investigating the ‘Slade Alley Vanishings’. The title is Oink Oink, but a ‘wink wink’ from the author is unmissable.
What happened to all the visitors? Are they really dead? What is the significance of the nine-year gap between each visit? Why does the house not exist for the outside world, and who are the people these visitors meet in the house every nine years?
The stories begin innocently enough, some even playful, but the doom and the darkness slowly creep up on the reader with every page. There’s even full disclosure in a later story, even if it is assumed to be complete bollocks by the ‘visitor’ of that year. After all, why would a journalist believe claims of achieved immortality, even if it’s the only prize worth hunting. As Mitchell writes, “It’s why religion got invented and it’s why religion stays invented. What else matters more than not dying? Power? Gold? Sex? A million quid? A billion? A trillion? Really? They won’t buy you an extra minute when your number’s up.”
Mitchell’s prowess lies not only in brilliantly imagining the unreal, but also in capturing the real with deep clarity, laced with a liberal dose of wit and humour. Mitchell also likes to allude to his earlier works. In Slade House, he returns to the Cloud Atlas format, breaking down the novel into individual stories, while roping in characters from his earlier novels, The Thousand Summers of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks.
The book is spooky, thrilling and exhilarating in its celebration of the paranormal, as Mitchell ditches the subtlety of Cloud Atlas to bring out the full force of horror. It resembles one of those pure fun movies where you don’t need to believe anything, but just enjoy a superbly-crafted visual extravaganza. One can’t miss the visual potential of the book as well, especially in visualising images of “shimmery spheres of the prey’s soul” disappearing.
Slade House began as a series of tweets, but thankfully, Mitchell didn’t stop at the first story, and chose to take the idea further to a full five stories. And what fun ones at that.