(2015) David Mitchell, Sceptre, £12.99, hrdbk, 240pp, ISBN 978-1-473-61668-4
Linking up to the universe he created in the World Fantasy Award winning The Bone Clocks (although he says all his work is inter-linked), and spawned by a short story written in twitter format, David Mitchell’s Slade House is a delicious, round-the-campfire, spooky story, but in keeping with the story he tells, those recounting the tale beside the flames might be out to do you harm, so try and stay awake all night, and you might have a chance to survive when the Sun begins to rise-might!
But rule one of Mitchell’s Fright Club should be if you see a distraught woman at a window mouthing something that might be “No! No! No!” or “Go! Go! Go!”, you go, you get out of there –quick! In 1979, 13 year old Nathan Bishop sees such a woman at the window of Slade House, but she is a mere phantom, an echo, and Nathan is having too much fun. His uptight mother is playing piano in the house and he is free to make friends with the slightly-strange, slightly old-fashioned boy called Jonah and they embark on a game of Fox and Hounds and start running through the garden. Nathan is a wonderful creation, clearly autistic and popping his mother’s valium tablets, starts to become aware that all is not as it seems in the garden of Slade House, but that might just be a hallucination caused by the tablets.
Then with a slight gap we are in 1988 and the next novella with the not very likable, but well-drawn mind of CID officer Gordon Edmonds, who is following up a lead about the missing Bishops and he encounters a widow living in Slade House and starts to romance her, purely for the sex, of course, and tapping into any dosh she has which would help alleviate the dreadful financial position he has gotten into. This part almost reads like a parody of TV detectives with Edmonds being too dim to see all the clues in front of him until it is way too late.
Fast-forward to nine years later and the missing Bishops and Edmonds have become a mini-urban legend, enough of a legend to warrant the investigation of the University Paranormal Society and Sally Timms, the misfit, overweight girl is among them. She has a crush on another team member, and their outing starts out like “Five Go On a Ghost Hunt” with similar jokey banter and then descends into darker territory.
Nine years passes and we are with, Freya, the journalist sister of Sally, who disappeared nine years ago along with all the members of the field trip. She is in a pub to meet Fred Pink, a window cleaner who was the last person to see the Bishops alive all those years ago, but he was hit by a car just after speaking to Nathan’s mum and has been in a coma, then been in a mental institute – can she trust him and the fantastic story he tells about the inhabitants of Slade House and what their deadly purpose is? Again this is another perfectly-drawn character study with some heartbreaking texts thrown in from Freya’s lover.
You might think this is all a bit samey, here comes the next victim of Slade House and those who live there, who are able to manipulate space and time for their own horrible end, but Mitchell’s skill is in his characterisation and the fact, that even in the case of the dreadful Edmonds, we care about these people – we want them to live, to get away. While every inter-linked novel almost ends with a horror, there are subtler scares within the stories – echoes of former victims who appear where we know what’s happened to them but the new character doesn’t, not to mention portraits of people with missing eyes, shudder. Within one of the novellas, a weapon is discovered, a weapon is passed on, a weapon is used – and to be honest I wasn’t sure how all of that was able to happen, but it does.
Mitchell fans will enjoy this companion piece to The Bone Clocks even if he does break his own rules at times and while I felt slightly cheated at the end – no spoilers here – Slade House is an intriguing, disturbing, brilliantly drawn short-ish novel (by Mitchell’s standards), with a great cover if you read the hardback.
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