David Mitchell’s new book, Slade House, is not quite a novel and not really a collection of short stories. It is, rather, a puzzle and an amusement. A member of the same family as last year’s The Bone Clocks, it also has a slight connection to his 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell has said in interviews that he thinks of his books being volumes in one mega work, or ‘übernovel’, and like his earlier fictions, Slade House meditates on varieties of predation, a theme explored to most moving effect in Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten.
The territory here is more straightforwardly supernatural, although the otherworldly high jinks are balanced by Mitchell’s generous touch with characters from Britain’s economic and social margins. In giving nuanced voice to an autistic teenager, Nathan, whose pianist mother seems not wholly to understand him, and to an obese student, Sally Timms, who despairs of being noticed by the handsomest boy in her university’s Paranormal Society, Mitchell provides enough ballast for the book to be more substantial, and more ‘literary’, than the usual run of genre fiction.
And to what genre might Slade House belong, in any case? The ghost story? Not quite, although there are certainly ghosts. Fantasy? Not entirely, since Mitchell’s handling of the paranormal remains grounded in a gritty realism of the present. ‘Slipstream’ is the literary quarter where some have sought to ghettoise him, but Mitchell appears determined to thwart attempts at strict classification of his novels. Increasingly, his work functions as its own genre, one whose constituent books are never dull and that often surprise with the depth of their insights into the psychology of quite ordinary people who find themselves trapped in fantastic situations.
As with most of Mitchell’s novels, the architecture of Slade House is both elegant and episodic. The story bounces along from 1979 to our immediate present, stopping for a chapter-length one-night stand every nine years, on the last Saturday in October. On this date the eponymous enchanted house appears, allowing its occupants, the evil Grayer twins, to lure in and poison a psychically gifted innocent. Once immobilised, the victims are allowed to watch in horror as their souls are extracted and consumed through a process of soul decanting, which has allowed the twins, born in 1899, to prolong their youth indefinitely.
Mitchell manages each chapter’s fateful progression with the sort of deft narrative and temporal twists that his readers have come to expect, and there are surprises along the way, to be sure. His gift for writing strangeness into even the most commonplace settings, and of finding ways to mislead readers without losing their trust, recalls that classic American television series The Twilight Zone. As satisfying and unsettling as Slade House’s chills remain, in the end one hopes that Mitchell soon turns back to reality — even to the kinds of speculative reality that made Cloud Atlas at once visionary and devastatingly plausible. It is in that territory that he moves us, or at least this reader, the most.
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Patrick Flanery is the author of Absolution, a novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa.