Slade House by David Mitchell (2015) 233p.
I moved back to Melbourne recently and I’m subletting in a big old townhouse in East Melbourne, near Punt Road, right across from Yarra Park. It hasn’t been renovated since the ‘60s or ‘70s and has an air of decayed grandeur about it; faded wallpaper, mouldy ceilings, an overgrown back garden. All the other housemates have gone away for the Christmas break, so I return each evening at dusk to a large and empty house. I was sitting in my bedroom the other day when I swear I heard the floorboards creaking in the hallway outside. All of which makes it a perfect atmosphere for reading Slade House, David Mitchell’s haunted-house-slash-paranormal-fantasy novel about a creepy old mansion somewhere in the urban wastelands of Greater London, which only seems to appear once every nine years on the last Saturday in October.
Slade House breaks the publishing pattern for Mitchell. His books typically take several years to come out, they’re always longer than this, and although they link themes and ideas they’ve also broken fresh ground, from the semi-autobiography of Black Swan Green to the historical fiction of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Slade House, on the other hand, very firmly takes place within the universe of The Bone Clocks. It’s neither a sequel nor a prequel, but a secondary story thread running within it.
I have to say that Mitchell’s developed an alarming habit of becoming over-expository. I mentioned in my review of The Bone Clocks that one of that novel’s most pivotal chapters was far too gushing with its explanations about exactly what had been going on in the background all the time, replete with dozens of made-up fantasy terms like horologists, suasion, orison and (ugh) psychovoltage. I’m obviously not a genre snob and I never had an issue with Mitchell creating that world, but I did have to take issue with how clumsily he conveyed it to the reader – with all the hallmarks of a literary author writing genre, as though concerned that people wouldn’t quite twig what was going on unless it was thoroughly spelt out to them. I’m afraid to say that in Slade House he doubles down on this, up to and including repeated scenes of evil gloating by the cartoonish villains to their hapless victims.
It still mostly works. As a horror story it’s quite effective – unless that’s just because I read it in this big, empty old house. One aspect that actually works better than The Bone Clocks is how the story is now told from the perspective of the Anchorites’ victims, people whom we come to know quite well, and sympathise with even if we don’t particularly like them. As the pattern of the nine-year ritual becomes clear we can greet each new arrival with a sense of dread, the literary version of watching a clueless character in a horror film walk right into the jaws of death. Having read The Bone Clocks, on the other hand, also makes the final chapter something of a letdown, as the closest thing Mitchell has to a superhero shows up. As soon as they introduce themselves by name we know that the game’s up for the predatory lord and lady of Slade House.
This sort of thing is far less interesting to me than any number of ideas for novels which are no doubt rattling around inside Mitchell’s head. It seems to sit uneasily with a number of reviewers, too, even those who didn’t banish him to genre town after reading The Bone Clocks. At the Guardian, Liz Jensen seems to think Mitchell is satirising himself; in the New York Times, Dwight Garner says Mitchell’s interlinked world is starting to feel “less like Yoknapatawpha and more like Marvel;” and Scarlett Thomas says that “Slade House is what happens when authors start writing their own fan fiction.” Ouch!
I wouldn’t be as harsh as that. I still enjoy most anything David Mitchell puts to paper, and I liked the time-spanning adventures of the Horologists and the Anchorites in The Bone Clocks, even if I thought it was sometimes clumsily overwrought. Personally I’d compare Slade House to a B-side: it’s not a main attraction, just a collection of extra stuff an artist threw together which they thought the fans might appreciate. I’d have no problem with Mitchell writing stuff like this again, especially since it took him less than a year. I just hope he continues to mine the other rich seams of his imagination with longer, thicker and properly independent novels, instead of essentially writing an ongoing serial about The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Marinus.