“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M.C Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”
This line, spoken by a cameo character in Slade House, is a cheeky way for author David Mitchell to draw attention to his own wacky imagination. Reading Mitchell’s latest novel is like falling down a dark rabbit hole and arriving, not in wonderland, but in a haunted fun house from which there is no escape.
Slade House is an obvious departure from Mitchell’s previous works. Cloud Atlas and Bone Clocks are longer and increasingly difficult to grasp. They are hard work for readers, and in comparison, Slade House has a simpler and more discerning storyline. It’s a quick read with a compelling plot, leaning on familiar themes from both the fantasy and horror genres.
Every nine years, Nick and Norah Greyer handpick victims and seduce them into Slade House, a large London estate that was supposedly hit by a German bomb and destroyed in 1940. Their victims do not always come willingly and so the house must alter in order to suit their needs. In one chapter the house is a raging teen party, in another it is a grand estate with a summer garden in full bloom.
Mitchell has created an assortment of oddball characters; from plump teen Sally Timms who is trying futilely to impress a boy in her university paranormal society, to the chauvinistic Detective Inspector Edmunds who is half-heartedly investigating Slade House, and then there is single mother Rita and her son Nathan Bishop who disappear in 1979. Seemingly with nothing in common, all possess a special and rare quality, unseen and unknown to them, which makes them valuable pawns in Norah and Jonah’s dark plans.
Despite a brilliant beginning the story suffers towards the finish from over-explanation to prop it up. Mitchell works overtime to ensure each loose end is tied, thus breaking his own spell and the reader becomes aware that they are reading a story rather than becoming lost in it.