Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Much of the praise I’ll heap on Slade House will sound as though it’s been lifted from my review of The Bone Clocks. The two books share a character, a general theme, and an impressive range of voices.

Back cover:
Down the road from a working-class pub, along a narrow brick alley, you just might find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find you can’t. Every nine years, the residents of Slade House extend an invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently-divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside? For those who find out, it’s already too late…

At 238 pages split across five sections, Slade House is ideal creepy bedtime reading. Each section’s abrupt end is chased by a nine-year gap, so they’re the kind of cliffhangers that let you close the book to get some sleep (in theory). Each is narrated by a radically different voice: a 12-year-old boy, a retired cop, a student, and so on. As in all of Mitchell’s books, each voice is natural and convincing. He doesn’t just alter the tone of his writing to create a new voice; he tweaks phrasing, word choice, cultural references, and idiosyncrasies.

The type of monster in Slade House isn’t new, but Mitchell’s portrayal is. Much of the suspense and many jump scares come from the way he subverts expectations of the haunted house genre. Visitors to haunted houses are typically presented with clues or tests that offer an escape or warning, but Slade House doesn’t offer these amenities. I was continually surprised by the cruelty and inevitability that frame each encounter. I don’t find haunted house stories particularly menacing because I tell myself that a) I wouldn’t go into that creepy house in the first place and b) I’d leave at the first indication of weirdness before the walls started bleeding, because c) I’m smarter than these people. But in Slade House, the tricks are nasty and hard to see coming. Being perceptive isn’t a guarantee of safety. Your best bet? If you see a small, black, iron door, don’t go in.

The only tedious part is the villain’s backstory. It’s the only section in which the pacing slows and the weird jargon feels affected and disruptive. Until this point, I had been following the gist of the story even without knowledge of the minutiae and technicalities. I was okay with the level of mystery. Initially, I was excited to get some clear answers, before it veered into let me tell you the particulars of my evil plan, Mr. Bond territory. This is a fine line; I’m surprised Mitchell crossed it.

This paragraph contains a spoiler, but it’s something I knew before reading and it increased my enjoyment. The last section features a deus ex machina in the shape of a character from The Bone Clocks. If you’ve read The Bone Clocks, the instant you see the name (M) you’ll know what’s about to happen. If you haven’t, you’ll say, “Who is this and why are they able to fix things so easily?” Because I knew this going in and was braced for a “cheap” ending, it didn’t bother me even though I hadn’t yet read The Bone Clocks. (If you haven’t read either book, I’d recommend starting with Slade House; it’s a great tease and will give you patience for The Bone Clock’s long tangents.)

Overall: 4.7 Taut, scary, and a great set-up for The Bone Clocks even though just about everyone will tell you Slade House is meant to be read second. I hadn’t warmed to Mitchell before reading it and, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found The Bone Clocks half so satisfying.

Translation: Read it. Not by candlelight though.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.