This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 9 November 2015. It was my first article for them, and I’m happy to say there are a good few more to come.
Whatever people were expecting from David Mitchell’s new book, it probably wasn’t a horror story. But with his new novel Slade House, that is precisely what he has delivered: a tight, no-nonsense, atmospheric thriller, which delivers the strong characterisation and careful attention to structure that Mitchell’s fans have come to expect. After the bloated and somewhat self-indulgent The Bone Clocks, it’s refreshing to see Mitchell produce such a lean offering, concluding in just over 200 pages. If nothing else, it shows us that Mitchell can still surprise. However, this is perhaps its greatest attribute. The concision of Slade House’s design fails to fully compensate for its lack of inventive content — it doesn’t reach the heights of some of his earlier novels.
The book consists of five linked short stories, centred on the titular Slade House, a mysterious, shape-shifting property which materialises for one day every nine years and lures another unsuspecting victim into its sinister trap. All but one of the stories are narrated by said victims, and Mitchell’s characterisation here is as good as it has ever been. In a handful of pages he can sketch out a compelling and detailed portrait of a character, from the isolated and lonely to the obnoxious and the bullying. All of the characters are desperate in some way, and the deceptions created by the house always reflect their insecurities back at them in clever and twisted ways.
One of the less discussed aspects of Mitchell’s last few novels is how effectively tense they were in places. Here, writing an out-an-out horror novel, Mitchell capitalises on this. Each story is a wonderful exercise in creeping dread, as the character’s inevitable fate is slowly built up to, every narrative climaxing with the same nightmarish finale in the attic of the house. The tales are of a standardised, uniform length, each of them perfectly paced — at least part of their effectiveness lies in their repetitiveness, building a sense of menacing inevitability. It’s a perfectly orchestrated series of peaks and troughs, leading to a conclusion as horrifying as it is dreamlike. Mitchell has always been a master of structure, and Slade House is his most deceptively simple, and his most chilling.
There is also plenty of meta-narrative for Mitchell’s fans to draw pleasure from. Characters and props from previous novels drop in and out of the stories, and the final story centres on a recurring character who is becoming increasingly central to Mitchell’s fiction. But this overtly self-conscious self-referentiality proves to be one of the book’s greatest downfalls. The novel ends on what is a far-too-blatant sequel tease for a story which, while exciting, makes the whole book feel like a bit of a glorified prologue. Mitchell’s books are increasingly starting to resemble the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the references and continuity points, while amusing, rob Slade House of any significant depth.
Slade House is by no means a bad read. Mitchell hits on a good horror premise, comes up with a few interesting variations on it, and wraps it all up before it outstays its welcome. It’s a solid, workmanlike thriller, expertly put together. What it isn’t, however, is particularly groundbreaking or ambitious. It’s Mitchell playing with the toys of his fictional universe, which are amusing, but are not an artistic end in themselves. The sense of mad, cackling ambition which animated Mitchell’s best work is almost entirely absent, and while Mitchell’s underlying skill remains, it is not being directed anywhere interesting. Cloud Atlas felt huge, innovative and intensely alive. Slade House feels like just another David Mitchell book. And while it is perhaps unfair to compare it to Mitchell’s best work, the fact remains that Slade House is a good book that it’s hard to feel very good about.