Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
The door pulls my palm up against it. It’s warm…
And as it swings inwards, the hinges shriek like brakes…
… and we’re looking into a garden: a buzzing, still summery garden.
The focal point of David Mitchell’s Slade House is nothing more, nothing less, than an unremarkable metal door in a narrow alleyway. Inconspicuous as it may seem, the door serves as a bridge from the normal to paranormal; walking through that door turns daydreams into nightmares. It is precisely this entering without leaving that turns Slade House into a spine-chilling, bloodcurdling, hair-raising classic horror story.
David Mitchell has earned his status as something of a modern master of the multi-layered novel. In his iconic Cloud Atlas, he propels the reader from Stone Age to a dystopian future, having the same character types and themes re-emerge, or even reincarnate, across the ages.
Slade House follows the same schema, although in a much more compressed form. It is a horror novel told in five acts, with five protagonists going through the mysterious iron door into Slade House, one every nine years on the last Saturday of October. In 1979, young Nathan Bishop follows his pianist mother to a music recital in Slade House; in 1988, Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds ventures in to investigate the disappearance of mother and son nine years earlier, and ends up falling for the lady of the house; in 1997, student Sally Timms joins a university society to explore the paranormal activity allegedly associated with the house; in 2006, Sally’s sister, journalist Freya, looks into the disappearance of her sister; and in 2015, psychiatrist Iris Marinus-Fenby finds herself interested in her patients’ paranormal experiences, and lets an expert lead her through the door – or so the reader thinks. Slade House – both in the sense of the house and the novel – deceives the reader and the characters alike. It is where dreams soon become distortions of reality, all orchestrated by the mysterious twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, who trap each protagonist, as well as the reader, in their theatre of horrors, ruthlessly playing with their minds.
It is precisely this psychological exploration of human mind and motives that the horror of Slade House arises from. The five parts are built on a Cloud Atlas–esque idea of recurring themes: all the protagonists are missing someone in their lives and end up acting against common sense to find human connection. The bullied Nathan craves for real friendship, Inspector Edmonds for female attention, Sally for feeling loved, Freya for her sister, and Dr Marinus-Fenby – well, that would be giving away a major plot twist. Where the horror comes in is how these very human needs and wishes are manipulated, and, through that, how vulnerable individuals are exploited. As in the most bloodcurdling psychological horror, these vulnerabilities are more than apparent to the reader but not to the characters of the novel:
Todd Cosgrove. A good name for a boyfriend. ‘Todd’ is kind of classless while ‘Crossgrove’ is borderline posh. Nice balance. ‘Sally Timms’ sounds like a shat-upon events organiser, but ‘Sal Cosgrove’ could be a rising star at the BBC, or an interior designer to the stars, or a legendary editor. Sal Cosgrove isn’t fat, either. She’d never wolf down a family-size bag of Minstrels and make herself vomit it up in the toilet afterwards. True, I only properly started talking with Todd half an hour ago, but every instance of undying love was only half an hour young, once upon a time.
True to form, Mitchell executes all of this in impeccable style. In many ways, Slade House is a very traditional horror story, and, despite mirroring the structure of Cloud Atlas, not as complex as its predecessor – which should not be expected, given its much lesser page count – but it comes with a refreshing sprinkle of humour, setting it apart from many other traditional works in the genre. The humour lies implicitly in the representation of the characters’ thoughts, as if Mitchell is silently laughing at the choices and predictability of his creations. The unfortunate Inspector Edmonds deserves many a smile for his overly self-confident demeanour after his first visit to the lady of Slade House:
I may be an idiot in some respects but when it comes to women, I’m more experienced than most guys. I’ve slept with twenty-two women, from Angie Pike the Sheerness Bike to last month’s Surrey stockbroker’s bored housewife with a thing about handcuffs, and I could tell Chloe Chetwynd was thinking about me like I was thinking of her. As I walked back to my car, I felt fit and slim and strong and good and confident that something had just begun.
Slade House does not come with many flaws, but the niggles it does have, funnily enough, reflect its greatest strengths. While the structure consisting of five short stories with recurring themes is the ground stone for the psychological thrill of the novel, it also makes the story slightly too predictable. True, part of this serves to build up a sense of horror as the reader knows what awaits the protagonist (and believe me, it is not a pleasant fate), but the plot is made perhaps a bit too easy to follow. The final twist, though, works as an effective antidote to the predictability earlier in the novel, delivering gripping scenes right until the closing scene.
Also, opting for classic horror story themes as stylistic devices – Halloween, a shady alley, a Victorian backstory, dark attics – makes Slade House read as slightly clichéd.
A slit of light opens its eye and becomes a long flame. Cold bright star white. A candle, on a candlestick, on the scarred floorboards. The candlestick’s dull silver or pewter or lead and it’s got symbols on it, or maybe letters from a dead language. The flame’s not moving, it’s as if time’s unspooled and jammed. [–] They’re wearing grey cloaks with hoods half down; his hair’s short and hers is long, and it’s gold instead of black like before; and they’re kneeling like they’re praying, or meditating.
Yet the clichés are refreshed with Mitchell’s unique touch of humour, even to the extent that they are, on occasion, treated with the slightest hint of irony.
Slade House is a traditional horror story with a twist – it stays true to both Mitchell’s style and the genre of psychological horror. A somewhat darker holiday read, Slade House does not fail to bring out the goosebumps in even the warmest summer weather.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist who blogs at http://wishiwasmary.wordpress.com
David Mitchell, Slade House (Sceptre, 2016). 978-1473616707, 240pp., paperback.
BUY Slade House from the Book Depository.