Upping the Stakes of the Haunted House Story: David Mitchell’s Slade House

There is entirely too much David Mitchell on my TBR Stack. On the one hand, I want to devour every book he’s written. On the other hand, I don’t want to read them all until I know when his next one is coming out.

…I’ll admit this is a good problem to have. David Mitchell has written seven novels, all parts of a grander “über-novel” that I’ll talk about a little more below the cut. Since I’ve been on a haunted house kick I decided to dive into his latest book, Slade House, but belatedly realized it’s really a sequel to The Bone Clocks. I decided to try reading them in reverse order, to see how that affected my experience, and I’m happy to say I can recommend my method. I’ll talk about both books a bit, focusing on Slade House, and trying not to spoil either.

For anyone unfamiliar with David Mitchell’s novelistic universe: the world of his books stretches a few thousand years into the past and a few hundred into the future. It’s our universe, more or less, but behind all of the human lives we encounter, there is also a battle raging between two different types of immortal beings. Also people have souls that are separate from their physical forms and, seemingly, from their personal consciousnesses. Who or what created them (if anyone/thing) is unknown (so far), as is their ultimate fate. The two types of immortals (Atemporals) are (1) those who reincarnate naturally, either immediately upon death or 49 days later, for reasons they do not know, and (2) those who have figured out a trick for harvesting the souls of psychically sensitive children, which are then rendered into a sort of spiritual liquor and drunk. The other fun thing to know about Mitchell’s novels is that he is a committed metalepsis-ist—meaning that characters from one novel will occasionally cameo in another novel. A character you loved in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet might have a great-grandkid pop up halfway through Cloud Atlas, and a child who has a small role in Black Swan Green might turn up as a Machiavellian Cambridge student in The Bone Clocks. Since these books all take place in one grand universe, their lives can overlap—which creates a feeling of far deeper reality than most novelists achieve. It creates amazing moments of recognition. A profile of Mitchell in Vulture mentioned the similarity to Madeleine L’Engle’s Chronos and Kairos timelines, with members of the Murry, O’Keefe, and Austin families occasionally crossing paths, or having friends like Canon Tallis and Zachary Gray in common…but what makes Mitchell a bit more interesting, at least to me, is that where L’Engle’s spiritual project wrapped her characters in a benevolent universe where Good was pretty definitely going to triumph, Mitchell’s are trapped in a world that can be thrown off its axis by human evil and selfishness at any time…which makes the rare moments of kindness all the more important.

So, are you with me?

Please understand that I’m not saying that all of the above isn’t true in our world—it very well might be, because David Mitchell is so freaking smart I wouldn’t be surprised by the knowledge that he’s a thousand years old.

I’m also only throwing so much information at you to tell you that as complicated as all this may seem, it’s just background. The point of Mitchell’s novels, at least the ones that I’ve read, is to place human struggle and emotion at the center of the story, while all of these fun fantastical element swirl around…usually. In Slade House, however, the fantastical element is hugely important because it allows Mitchell to change the shape of the haunted house novel.

Slade House is essentially a pocket universe attached to The Bone Clocks, which some people consider Mitchell’s masterpiece. That book is a huge, six-part epic tracking the life of Holly Sykes, one of the physically sensitive children I mentioned, whose life is saved by one of the nicer Atemporals. We follow her adventures through her own eyes, and the eyes of some of her friends and lovers, from 1984 until 2043. The fifth section of the novel comes closest to becoming a pure fantasy, as it centers on the battle between the various immortals. The sixth section is a slice of near-future dystopia that makes The Road look like a rollicking good time.

But the important part is that Mitchell uses all these fantastical trappings and recurring characters to help build a world where we deeply care about Holly, her partner Ed, her friend Crispin, her daughter Aoife, her granddaughter Lorelei. But The Bone Clocks is 624 pages long in paperback. Of course we start caring about the people – we’d have to, or else we’d never push through the whole book. But when you turn to the spinoff, Slade House, you have a slim novel about a haunted house, and really the rules should change.

The point of a haunted house novel is that you don’t get too attached. You watch the people go in to the house, and you gleefully watch them get undone by the house. Generally you know what’s going to happen as soon as someone gets within whatever the house’s radius of evil is: you know that reality is going to bend around them, and they’re going to question their sanity for a while before any mention of the supernatural is considered. If a group of people has promised to spend a night or a weekend in the house, they’ll find some excuse to split into groups and get picked off by ghosts. If there’s a psychic young woman, she’s going to channel something icky. If there’s a crypt or an on-site graveyard, someone’s going to find their own name on a tombstone, or get pushed into a casket, or simply be frightened…to death. The person who built the house is probably an occultist and/or murdered his wife and/or daughters. Is there a creepy painting of said wife and/or daughters? Take a drink. Do the painting’s eyes seem to follow a character as she walks around the room? Take another drink. This is all the window dressing to decorate the basic fact of reading a haunted house story: you know that everyone’s probably doomed, but that unless the characters end up haunting it, too, the worst that will happen is that they’ll, you know, die.

David Mitchell takes this and ups the stakes in two ways. First, in the Mitchellverse souls are real, if a bit undefined, and that’s what’s at stake in Slade House – not the character’s lives, but their souls. A much grimmer prospect than mere death, because the scene where the horror stops—where the character succumbs to the house and gives up their own, personal, ghost—is only the beginning. Over and over, we see the house’s victims paralyzed, already physically dead, as their last moments of consciousness are spent watching a pair of evil energy vampires, Jonah and Norah Grayer, literally eat their essence.

You find out your soul is real and watch an evil immortal eat it? Not a great day.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the bastard also makes us care about every single person who is lured to their doom. Since Mitchell tends to write in first person, we follow four successive people into Slade House and its environs, and each time we’re inside their minds as reality starts to shift, and they begin to realize that things are not what they seem. It’s always too late. It’s always horrifying.

Now, why would a person want this as a reading experience? Well first of all it’s a fascinatingly fatalistic take on horror. Normally we come into a haunted house story from the outside, hearing rumors and only gradually learning its history. And here each chapter layers a new bit of Slade House’s past together, along with the centuries-long history of the eeee-villll Grayer Twins. But what is more interesting is the exercise in empathy as you meet each new person, and find yourself caring about them even as you know they’re doomed.

And anyway, one of them is just bound to escape…right?

But even more fun is the fact that since we’re in their minds from the outset, we experience the uncanny, all-encompassing pull of the house. As each new victim arrives, we know, more or less, what’s about to happen to them, but through that very repetition we experience the horror of reality shifting and people we thought we could trust turning on us. Because of this the book becomes an experience in empathy more than a simple, fun scary story.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place. Come give her reading suggestions on Twitter!

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