Slade House (27 October 2015) by David Mitchell
David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks may have been a disappointment for numerous reasons, a three-star book that really, if I was being completely honest, should have been two (as I've occasionally done, I gave it extra credit, so to speak, because of my affection for the author's other work), but that didn't stop me from being excited about Slade House. A (sort of) ghost story centred on one mysterious house was always going to be irresistible to me. Early reviews have compared it to classic ghost stories and horror movies, and it's often been referred to as 'a haunted house story'. That isn't quite the case, as anyone familiar with the premise of The Bone Clocks' more fantastical segments will likely guess, but Slade House certainly has the spirit (no pun intended) and suspense of one.
Why am I mentioning The Bone Clocks anyway? Well: published hot on the heels of its predecessor, Slade House is a short novel with significant links to the world of The Bone Clocks; though it's been established that all Mitchell's novels are linked, this is arguably a follow-up rather than a wholly new story. (It's also partly based on a tale Mitchell originally 'published' in a series of tweets.) That said, you might initially wonder where exactly the similarities lie. This begins as a story about Nathan, a teenage boy who, with his mother, visits the eponymous house. It's hidden down Slade Alley, grey and narrow and and permanently rainy, and is accessed through a small iron door. What lies beyond this unprepossessing door is incongruous: a grand house, a beautiful, verdant garden, and a charming aristocratic host, Lady Norah Grayer.
In what's become regarded as typical Mitchell style, the book doesn't stick with Nathan, but tells a number of short stories in different voices and different time periods, though they all have the same basic premise and structure: someone comes to visit Slade House and finds something they desire behind that door - something that's (needless to say) not what it seems. There are nuances of characterisation here that were (weirdly) absent from the much longer Bone Clocks: loveable but exasperating Nathan and his understandably agitated mother; swaggering copper Gordon, with an unexpected heart of gold; Sally - lovely, tragic Sally. The first two in particular are clever feats of subverted expectation: starting off as cliched character types, they turn out to be so much more fine-spun than that. Meanwhile, our villains are the ruthless Grayer twins - they're undoubtedly sinister and satisfyingly nasty, but there's an element of comedy in their bickering that smacks of sitcom banter. That prevents the repeating doomed scenario on which the plot hinges from making the whole thing too depressing, even though really, there's quite a lot of tragedy in this book, something that's particularly keenly felt because the characters are so well defined.
Much shorter and tighter than The Bone Clocks, Slade House lacks the flabbiness of its predecessor; but towards the end, its links with the world of Bone Clocks become clearer, its fantasy element ramps up, and much of one chapter is devoted to belatedly explaining the Grayers' backstory. This is where it lost me a little. I know lots of people love the self-referential thing in Mitchell's books, but I'm finding it increasingly gimmicky; straining to recognise references or remember where you heard a name before can sometimes be detrimental to enjoyment, and gets a bit tiresome when repeated. And as much as I thought Bone Clocks was overlong, as much as I literally just said it was good that this was shorter, there were some other things I'd prefer to have been expanded and examined, instead of a rerun of all the Atemporal/orison/pyroblast stuff. I felt slightly deflated by the ending, though as with lots of enjoyable books, that might just have been because I wanted it to go on and on and on.
The thing is that even with its flaws, I'd read this again, and I want to buy a physical copy. I loved the idea, the mystery of Slade House; the setup of each character's approach of the place; I ache to know more about some of them, maybe all of them; and the atmosphere of the whole book has really stuck with me. I think it benefits from the fact that it's definitively a horror story, and a great example of one. The late October publication date is perfect, not only because it coincides with events in the story, but because this is one of those ideal winter books, with its crawling sense of horror and rain-soaked, freezing settings. And it made me want to revisit The Bone Clocks, too. Who'd have thought?
I received an advance review copy of Slade House from the publisher through NetGalley.
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