“High-dork mumbo-jumbo”: David Mitchell's Slade House

For all its terrifying, exciting moments, Slade House is at best a compulsively readable lark, too in thrall to its own eerie cosmology.

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David Mitchell’s freaky new novel traces a four-decade arc of mysterious evildoing and unsolved abductions taking place at a grand old house that suddenly appears once every nine years down a dark alley. The book features worlds-within-worlds, stories within stories, shape-shifting bad guys and good guys, and an amazingly believable phantom mansion, all of which will come as no surprise to Mitchell’s many devoted readers. Indeed, Slade House is a short and fast sequel to his fantastical magnum opus from last year, The Bone Clocks.

The natural question is whether this book stands on its own terms. The answer to that largely rests on symptomatic back-to-back moments that occur part-way through the book. On the first page, a journalist is conducting an interview with a local eccentric who claims to know a great deal about paranormal occurrences that have taken place in the nearby Slade Alley. The journalist is secretly seeking clues to the disappearance of her sister down this same alleyway on Hallowe’en night 1997, nine years earlier.

The old man goes on and on about semi-immortal, malevolent twins called Norah and Jonah Grayer. They suck up the souls of unsuspecting people who possess certain kinds of psychic energy, apparently including the journalist’s sister. She is predictably sceptical, not just about the semi-immortals but about the very existence of the soul, sourly observing: “Nobody’s ever held a soul or X-rayed one because . . .” Her interlocutor counters, “Is a mind X-rayable? Is hunger? Is jealousy? Time?”

The old man may be crazy (or not) about much else, but here he has a point, and through this exchange Mitchell delivers a cogent critique of the mundane confines of our contemporary imaginations, which are so willing to assign meaning and reality to certain things unseen, such as the mind, yet just as easily dismiss others, such as the soul. A page later, however, the man explains how the twins prey upon their victims and we get this:

“. . . their modus operandi . . . runs off o’ psychovoltage. The psychovoltage of Engifteds. Every nine years the Grayers have to feed it. They have to lure the right kind of guest into a . . . kind of reality bubble they call an orison. The orison’s their fourth breakthrough, by the way. Once the guest’s there, the twins have to get them to eat or drink Banjax. Banjax is a chemical that shrivels the cord fastening the soul to the body, so it can be extracted just before death.”

This sort of grave, high-dork mumbo-jumbo talk – of which there is far more in this novel than the simple and wise matter from the previous page – is plainly hard to take meaningfully unless you’re already hooked on it by liking similar formulations in The Bone Clocks. Regardless, you can take it seriously within the context of the novel only if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief at reading a renowned writer of literary fiction trafficking so much in this kind of stuff.

Mitchell has long had an interest in the supernatural, whether in a minor-key way, as in Black Swan Green, or full-bore, as with The Bone Clocks. The basic problem of Slade House, however, is that its offering of artful world-making and affecting storytelling – a combination that shows off Mitchell’s most distinctive and enviable capacities – is too fully captive to the novel’s fantasy-cosmology and the related battles between good and evil semi-immortals who differ sharply on whether human life is inherently valuable, or merely consumable.

If that debate had been given more attention, this might have been an important new novel from David Mitchell. Instead, Slade House is at best a compulsively readable lark, thanks to Mitchell’s cleverly patterned series of sliced narratives, in which a set of random-seeming people from late 1979 to 2015 find themselves inside the grand and alluring “Slade House”. There, they go through experiences that range from child’s play to boozy partying – but all of this ends up in unsettling confusion and reality-bending captivity to the Grayer twins. Until, that is, the twins finally meet their match . . . or do they?

To offer anything more than these details would neutralise the novel’s frequently terrifying and flat-out exciting elements, of which there are many – perhaps even a few too many for readers expecting more than fantasy-fiction dramatics and dork gravitas from the great David Mitchell. 

Slade House by David Mitchell is published by Spectre (£12.99, 240pp)

David Mitchell will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November

Randy Boyagoda’s latest novel, Beggar's Feast, is published by Penguin

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?