Slade House is David Mitchell’s follow-up to the very successful The Bone Clocks (also reviewed on daeandwrite). I read Slade House in conjunction with fellow blogger “Run Bob, Run” (http://bobparksjohnson.blogspot.com). Bob has guest-blogged here on daeandwrite before; this time, I envisioned a point – counterpoint kind of thing but we may agree too much for that. Following, you’ll find Bob’s commentary in bold, mine in normal font.
“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”
This little insight from Sally Timms, an overweight, under-loved co-ed unaffectionately known to her mean-girl classmates as “Oink-oink” is as good a summary as any for this haunting little novel from David Mitchell. Slade House is not what it appears to be but in Mitchell’s world, nothing is. There isn’t much a fan of supernatural horror won’t recognize. There’s an old dark house, exotically connected twins, a mysterious seductress, a mischievous younger brother, even a long winding staircase with ghostly portraits hanging on the walls. There’s an old family curse that recurs periodically of course, and an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil whose resolution is never really sewed up. Mitchell’s story did not strike me as particularly ground breaking. The engine that keeps these 237 pages turning is not the plot, but the characters who drift into Slade House. (I would say “drift in and out,” but nobody ever drifts back out.)
Mitchell is the author of Cloud Atlas as well as The Bone Clocks and was recognized by Time magazine in 2007 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. From the three works with which I am familiar, the author is drawn to mystical treatments of reincarnation, whether in the Hindu sense of rebirth or the Bram Stokerish vampirism. He’s a mean yarn spinner. And while Slade House may not be particularly ground-breaking, the addition of Mitchell’s extension of life theme raises the level of writing.
I was immediately drawn in by Nathan, the autistic child whose social-climbing Mum is trying to juggle her ambitions as a classical pianist with the challenges of single parenthood in the ruthlessly classist society of London in 1979. Mitchell lets us see the world as Nathan sees it. Our attention leaps from one distracting detail to another. A flight of magpies. A yapping dog. A dead cat in an alley. Mum struggles to teach her boy the rainbow spectrum of polite conversation when he can only perceive black and white, good and bad, lying and telling the truth. Nathan is a compelling rendering of a child with Aspergers, and his all too brief appearance made me wish the author had allowed me to linger a little longer with him.
It is through Nathan’s eyes, and description, that we first see Slade House and its environs.
Slade Alley’s the narrowest alley I’ve ever seen, It slices between tow houses, then vanishes left after thirty paces or so. I can imagine a tramp living there in a cardboard box, but not a lord and lady.
“No doubt there’ll be a proper entrance on the far side,” says Mum. “Slade House is only the Grayers’ town residence. Their proper home’s in Cambridge.”
If I had 50p for every time Mum’s told me that, I’d now have 3.50. It’s cold and clammy in the alley like White Scar Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. Dad took me when I was ten. I find a dead cat lying on the ground at the first corner. It’s gray like dust on the moon. I know it’s dead because it’s a still as a dropped bag, and because big flies are drinking from its eyes. . . . It goes straight into the Top Five of the Most Beautiful Things I’ve Ever Seen.
Nathan was probably my favorite of the narrators also.
Gordon Edmonds, on the other hand, is a recently divorced, slightly balding police inspector with a bad attitude, a racist streak, and a barely restrained libido that leads him straight into the bed of a beautiful young widow whose motives are infinitely less pure than his own.
It is through Inspector Edmonds’ eyes that we get to experience more of the sensual experience of Slade House. He is served some divine meals by his hostess, Chloe Chetwynd, before he himself becomes dinner.
Jonah and Norah Grayer are the heirs and residents of Slade House, and they entertain plenty of other visitors: the psychiatrist with a secret, the team of collegiate ghost hunters, the weird little old man with an unbelievable story to tell, and Maggs, the forbidding landlady behind the bar of the Fox and Hounds pub who warns the nosey reporter not to stir up ancient history. It all has the creepy familiarity of a Hammer Films production from the 1960’s. There are perfect roles for Christopher Lee or Barbara Steele. Vincent Price might be a stretch, but Diana Rigg would be perfect as the willowy villain who keeps the slightly rusty gears of the plot turning.
What is it about twins that make a horror tale more horrific? These two — who must feed off the souls of an “Engifted” human once every nine years — are particularly revolting, self-involved, and co-dependent. In Norah’s words:
Now I think of it, the Cote d’Azur could be the right sanctuary for Jonah to spend a few weeks after nine static years in his wounded body. The Riviera has no lack of privileged hosts whose hair Jonah could let down, and I would enjoy the sunshine on a host’s skin after five days of this absurd English weather. A moon-gray cat appears at Bombadil’s feet, meowing for food. “You’re not as hungry as we are,” I assure it. The wind slams down Slade Alley, flurrying sleet and leaves in its roiling coil. I . . . think of sandstorms at the Sayyid’s house in the Atlas Mountains. How the twentieth century hurtled away.
I wasn’t crazy about Slade House, but I’m not prepared to call it a lousy book. It’s just a familiar and vaguely predictable ghost story with interesting characters and a cliff hanger of an ending that promises more of the same from a future volume. It might be a nice diversion for your October Book Club meetings.
I thought it was a quick, interesting character study read. Spooky yes. But more serious themes are there: what are we making of this life? What is the point of it? How would you use unlimited time? Given the medical breakthroughs on the horizon, all of these issues may become more pressing.
The menu? Well, a roast beef appears at one point, and there is a mysterious herb called banjax that only the most impolite of hosts would place on the buffet. A generous plate of hash brownies plays an important role. And if it isn’t giving away too much, the specialty of the house involves the careful preparation and consumption of souls. I’m not sure how Martha Stewart would translate any of this into finger food.
HA!! My menu would be taken from a dinner Chloe Chetwynd serves Inspector Edmonds.
Roast beef with “red wine, rosemary, mint, nutmeg, cinnamon, soy.”
Roasted vegetables including parsnips, potatoes, carrots, cubes of pumpkin.
Given the setting and tone of the novel I suggest consulting Gordon Ramsay’s recipe box. A nice Beef Wellington seems like an appropriately costumed entree, with honey glazed parsnips and carrots on the side for a come-hither touch of earthiness. There needs to be lots of booze, of course, Slade House is not the place to stay sober. Dry Sherry before, Burgundy during, a nice port after. A slightly cloying and intriguingly complex trifle would finish off the meal perfectly. In the den, with candles burning around the cracking fireplace, Moroccan coffee with a wittily ironic drop of Fra Angelico to intrigue the weary tastebuds and arouse the curious guests.
Music? Anything with a theremin. Or if you want to go Longhair, slip Mussorgsky onto the phonograph. Pictures at an Exhibition might seem a bit grand by the light of day, but once your guests have enough beef and liquor in them, they’ll fall right into your trap.
Also mentioned in Slade House: Philip Glass’ soundtrack for The Truman Show, “Novocaine for the Soul” by Eels, “Caught by the Fuzz” by Supergrass, “Hyperballad” by Bjork, “Safe from Harm” by Massive Attack. The films Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Exorcist make brief appearances and their scores would add the perfect creepy touch as well.
Thanks to Bob for reading and writing along with me!
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