Time Was: Slade House by David Mitchell

Though there have ever been elements of the speculative in David Mitchell’s fiction, his Man Booker Prize longlisted-last, released last year, was the first to fully embrace the form. Section by section, The Bone Clocks revealed itself to be “a soaring supernatural sextet” somewhat taken with time travel and very interested indeed in immortality. Unfortunately, the protracted finale of Mitchell’s sixth made a middling meal of the same fantastical flourishes that had been so appealing when presented with more measure—an oversight I’m pleased to say he sets right in his latest.

Not so much a novel as a collection of interlinked short stories, Slade House shares a world with The Bone Clocks—such that the Shaded Way has a pivotal role to play and Spot the Horologist is the game of the day—but where said setting was once an expansive canvas spattered with the stuff of science fiction, in this book it becomes the close-cropped backdrop of a hypnotic history of haunting.

For all that it has in common with The Bone Clocks, Slade House‘s characters and narrative notions are its own—excepting, perhaps, the presence of little Nathan Bishop, the central character of the first section of this text: an extended version of the same short Mitchell shared by way of the “diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjacket” of Twitter in the lead up to the publication of its predecessor.

Reiterated, ‘The Right Sort’ does not stop with Nathan lost in the gorgeous grounds of Slade House, which are “like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.” Instead, he ends up in the Victorian property proper, where the owners, Norah and Jonah, proceed to essentially sup his soul.

“It’s not as if Norah and Jonah go ‘Wooooooh’ or drip ectoplasm or write scary messages in mirrors,” but they are, as it happens, as good as ghosts. As jaunty Jonah explains to his markedly more vigilant twin sister before they drink down their next victim—a dodgy copper called Detective Inspector Edmonds who, instead of investigating Nathan’s mysterious disappearance, falls for the well fit and clearly completely innocent widow who says she stays in Slade House these days:

“For fifty-four years, our souls have wandered that big wide world out there, possessing whatever bodies we want, living whatever lives we wish, while our fellow birth-Victorians are all dead or dying our. We live on. The operandi works.”

“The operandi works provided our birth-bodies remain here in the lacuna, freeze-dried against world-time, anchoring our souls in life. The operandi works provided we recharge the lacuna every nine years by luring a gullible Engifted into a suitable orison. The operandi works provided our guests can be duped, banjaxed and drawn into the lacuna. Too many provideds, Jonah. Yes, our luck’s held so far. It can’t hold forever, and it won’t.”

Slade-House-by-David-Mitchell-UKNorah’s not wrong. Thanks to a warning from a near-as-damnit dead Nathan, Detective Inspector Edmonds manages to improvise a certain weapon which he, in turn, is able to pass on to protagonist the third, a young woman with body image issues lured onto the eponymous property by the promise of a party in the excruciating ‘Oink, Oink.’ I’ll give away no more of the overarching narrative than that, except to say “with each Open Day, these aberrations grow worse.”

In case you were wondering what all this death and devastation is in aid of, the answer is the same as it was in The Bone Clocks: nothing less than life everlasting! As conspiracy theorist Fred Pink puts it in ‘You Dark Horse You,’ the fourth (and my favourite) of Slade House‘s five sinister stories:

“It’s why religion got invented and it’s why religion stays invented. What else matters more than not dying? Power? Gold? Sex? A million quid? A billion? A trillion? Really? They won’t buy you an extra minute when you’re number’s up. No, cheating death, cheating ageing, cheating the care home, cheating the mirror and the dug-up corpse’s face like mine that you’ll see in your mirror too […] and sooner than you think: that’s a prize worth the hunting, the taking. That’s the only prize worth hunting.

“And what we want, we dream of. The stage props change down the age, but the dream stays the same: philosophers’ stones; magic fountains in lost Tibetan valleys; lichens that slow the decay of our cells; tanks of liquid whatever that’ll freeze us for a few centuries; computers that’ll store our personalities as ones and zeroes for the rest of time. To call a spade a spade: immortality.”

This shared fascination speaks to Slade House‘s only real weakness: whilst it’s perfectly accessible at the outset—more so, maybe, than any one of Mitchell’s earlier efforts—the longer the novel goes on, the less standalone it seems. Specifically, the last act’s complicity with the complex mythology of The Bone Clocks is such that I’d struggle to recommend what is in the final summation a side story, however clever, to folks who aren’t familiar with its fictional foundations.

If you have read its predecessor, however, you’ll find Slade House worthy of every superlative label applied to that last. Rich in resonance and delicately textured, it boasts a story which comes together incredibly despite the drastic differences between one section and the next, a masterfully imagined setting and a cast of remarkably realised characters, some of whom are likeable and some of whom are, let’s say, less so—as is always the way with Mitchell’s fantastic fiction.

Though it’s only approximately a quarter as long as The Bone Clocks, in this instance, less really may be more.

Slade House is available now from Random House.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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