Book review, David Mitchell, Ghost story, Slade House

Slade House, by David Mitchell, 2015

“A board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

‘Slade House’ is an unexpectedly old-fashioned ghost story. Mitchell has previously written novels in a variety of styles: ’Cloud Atlas’ was a highly successful experiment in form; ‘The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ was a more traditional historical novel, albeit with a twist, and his 2014 ‘The Bone Clocks’ was a supernatural thriller. Perhaps Mitchell Sladehas still to settle on a preferred form, but a ghost story is a fitting addition to his ‘uber’ novel’, even if its origins in a short story are all too apparent. The theme he returns to time and again is the one in the foreground here, the paranormal. Slade House’ is a ‘sort-of’ sequel to ‘The Bone Clocks’, in that it continues the story of a psychic war of good against evil.

Ghost stories are comforting fare. They scare us just a little, but we always know who is levitating the table, and that the creepy janitor is going to be behind the mask when it is removed in the final scene. I half expected to see Shaggy and Scooby skitter down Slade House’s long hallways at one point, so heavily does Mitchell lay on the shtick. The premise is that ‘Slade House’ destroyed in the Second World War, was preserved in time using some astral hocus pocus. Brigadoon-like it re-appears every nine years for its inhabitants, spooky vampire twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, to feast on the souls of their latest prey. We see each group of victims wander haplessly into their trap, taking the literal bait, and slowly realising they are latest in a long list of psychic entrees. The penny usually drops when they see their portrait as in a series of missing person’s pictures. (At least Mitchell avoided having the portrait’s eyes follow them around the room!) The twins are pretty incompetent evil masterminds, and are easily tracked down and despatched by the universe’s spiritual detectives, Marvel-like superheroes dedicated to balancing the force, or something along those lines.

The narrative point of view is that of the victims, which leads to several clumsy “the last thing I saw before my soul was feasted upon by the twins was…” type conclusions. If you can work your way past all this nonsense, the novel is harmless enough, not in the least disturbing; the Guardian’s review called it “The Bone Clocks’ naughty little sister in a fright wig”, which will give you a good idea of the playful tone of the text. This might have made a half decent chapter of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ or the outline for a ‘Doctor Who’ episode, but as a novel the concept is stretched too thin.

I recall objecting to the exploitative nature of some of the content of ‘The Bone Clocks’. Looking back I can see I said that “well researched historical romances are fine, but they are not normally my preferred choice of reading. Rape/murder/infanticide/torture/time travelling thrillers also have a specialised audience. Mashing the two together, as this novel does, goes beyond bizarre.” The same concerns persist with this novel. It’s a timely reminder that while ‘Slade House’ doesn’t take itself seriously, it does nevertheless deal with serious themes, and that the grief of the relatives of people who go missing and are presumed dead is not to be treated light-heartedly. Mitchell recognises this, but it doesn’t allow it to constrain him.

“We’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.”