Recently I’ve Read … Slade House by David Mitchell


Slade House is a mini-Mitchell novel that originated from a short story the author posted on Twitter to promote his last book, The Bone Clocks. Indeed, the two texts are related: the former takes place in the same ‘universe’ as the latter. Both revolve around two warring bands of immortals: the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the baddies). As one Horologist says to an Anchorite in Slade House, succinctly describing the distinction between them,

You murder for immortality … We are sentenced to it.

This concept is explained in (perhaps excessive) detail in Slade House, so I don’t think the novella poses a massive problem to those who haven’t read The Bone Clocks. Yes, those who have will be able to spot connections, recognise characters and, perhaps, make sense of the whole thing a little more readily (though not necessarily. Parts of this tale are exceptionally convoluted to say the least). But I reckon the relationship could just as easily be reversed and that Slade House could serve as a good introduction to the world of The Bone Clocks.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Slade House could function independently; i.e. is it worth the time of those who have no interest in The Bone Clocks whatsoever and just fancy a seasonally spooky read?

My answer is – perhaps frustratingly – ‘yes and no’.

Although it is much shorter than his other works, Slade House is, in the majority of ways, typical Mitchell fare. Which means that we get interconnected stories (five in total) that are either searingly brilliant or staggeringly dull and overwritten.

The action opens in 1979 and each subsequent story moves us nine years ahead until we end up in our own time: October 2015. Each story is connected and revolves around Slade House, a mysterious building that seems to materialise once every nine years and result in a inexplicable disappearance.

It seemed to me that the five stories gradually diluted in quality. Luckily, the first one sets the bar increbily high by being rather brilliant. Our protagonist in 1979 is Nathan Bishop, a 13-year-old boy who is clearly on the autistic spectrum and has been summoned to Slade House along with his mother. “Inventive” and “ambitious” are the adjectives most commonly associated with Mitchell. His artful rendering of Nathan’s overly literal take on the world suggests that “very, very funny” should be added to the list:

‘I’m not in the Scouts any more,’ I remind her. Mr Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter. I’d been on the local news and everything. Everyone was angry, but I was only following orders

Mitchell skillfully evokes Nathan’s voice so that he doesn’t just make us laugh; he provides a real insight into the life of a teenage outsider:

Mum never said anything about other boys at Lady Grayer’s musical soiree. Other boys mean questions have to get settled. Who’s coolest? Who’s hardest? Who’s brainiest? Normal boys care about this stuff and kids like Gary Ingram fight about it.

Nathan’s honesty, his clear-sighted but heart-rending acceptance of himself as decidedly not normal, means that we really care about him. So when the spookiness kicks in – when weird eyeless paintings appear and time begins to become woryingly out of joint – Nathan is more to us than just the Victim. And thus his story is lifted above standard supernatural fare.

Subsequent protagonists don’t quite have Nathan’s charm, but the 1988 and 1997 installments – the first concerning a boorish policeman sent to investigate Slade House and the second a group of students whose “ParaSoc” also takes an interest in the mysterious dwelling – are involving yarns with healthy doses of tension and chills.

In the three full-length Mitchell novels I have read – Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks – there has been one chapter or section I wanted to tear out in frustration. Slade House is no exception: the story set in 2006 is one long, tedious info-dump. The final, 2015 installment picks up a little but these last two stories are very weak and nowhere near as compelling as the first. In the final section, the supernatural suggestions  are sidelined entirely in favour of high-concept, over-explained fantasy elements. At this point, Slade House stops masquerading as a superior haunted house mystery and becomes tedious and convoluted.

All in all, then, Slade House runs out of steam and limps to the finish line. That shouldn’t, however, detract from the brilliance of its opening. Those first three stories are as inventive, gripping and entertaining as anything Mitchell has written previously. And even better – you can tear through this one in a day; for the most part, it will be time well spent.


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