Book: Slade House
By David Mitchell
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 240 pages
Price: Rs 499
In July 2014, David Mitchell took to Twitter and began to write a short story, one tweet at a time. Titled The Right Sort, the British novelist tweeted as his protagonist, 13-year-old Valium-stealing Nathan Bishop, who is on his way to a posh address, Slade House, with his mother, where the hard up for rent, working-class woman will attempt to impress folks above her station. Mitchell finished the story in 280 tweets but he wasn’t done writing about the strange happenings of the mansion — and why should he when he’s got a deliciously spooky plot on his hands? The next year, he released Slade House, the novel, and delivered on the promise made by the short story.
You know you’re reading the king of intertextuality when you’re reading Mitchell. Slade House is sort of a prequel to his sixth novel, the Booker-longlisted genre-bending fantasy, The Bone Clocks (2014). Holly, a runaway teen, sets off a series of metaphysical events of great consequence when she agrees to host a stranger’s soul through her lifetime. This is no ordinary person — it is the Horologist Dr Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), a clock-maker who is fighting an eternal battle against the Anchorites. Horologists are immortal: 49 days after they die, they wake up in a new, soul-less body and inhabit it. The Anchorites are positively evil: they hunt children and consume their souls, not unlike the Dementors in the Harry Potter series.
Divided into five interlinked episodes, Slade House begins in 1979 with an invitation from Lady Norah Grayer to a musical soiree that Bishop’s mother is loathe to pass up. Located in a narrow, dark alley, the house can be entered through a tiny iron door that leads to a beautiful garden where the air visibly starts to change and, of course, all is not as it seems. Nine years later, detective inspector Gordon Edmonds has finally got a lead on the mysterious disappearance of the Bishops and enters Slade Alley. He meets a widow, Chloe Chetwynd, who invites him to her home, Slade House. It doesn’t take much to seduce the racist, pathetic policeman and before he knows it, he finds himself at the mercy of Norah and Jonah, a pair of ravenous Anchorite siblings ready to consume him. They are 120 years old and every nine years, stage an elaborate show to lure and trap unsuspecting souls to feed on.
The cycle continues and in 1997, a group of university students belonging to a paranormal club decide to explore the legend of Slade House. The place is now disguised as a student house on Halloween. Only Sally Timms has a chance at survival but she cannot fight against the multiple illusions and deceptions in time. In 2006, Sally’s sister Freya comes to investigate and, perhaps, she can turn the tide against the evil duo. But there is one more story left, one more character left to show up at Slade House — a Doctor Iris Marinus-Fenby.
Mitchell is at the top of his game with Slade House and at a little less than 200 pages, the novel demands to be read in one sitting. The usual winks, nudges and references to his previous novels (namely Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks) are present but not overwhelmingly so. Mitchell is more concerned with taking that staple of horror, the haunted house, and locating it within the larger universe his famous characters inhabit. He does so with great aplomb and Slade House showcases Mitchell’s superb comic ability once again. Is it predictable? Yes. But it is also the stuff of goosebumps, chills and thrills — you’ll only put the Slade House down when it is done with you.