Monday, March 14, 2016
Book 17: So now I'm going to have to go read everything else David Mitchell ever wrote I guess.
Slade House is by David Mitchell; most people might know him as the author of Cloud Atlas, which I will probably put on my list to read now, since two books I've read by him have been just brilliant. Last year I read his The Bone Clocks, and that remains one of the best books I've read in a long time: ambitious, expansive in scope, yet intimate in narrative, effortlessly combining scifi and 'literary' prose into something fantastic and heart-wrenching at the same time... The Bone Clocks should be on everyone's list.
Slade House isn't as phenomenal-seeming as The Bone Clocks but that's probably just because it doesn't try to be. That's not a knock: Slade House is superb; it just tells a smaller story. Instead of a massive epic, it focuses in on one particular detail.
Both books are set in what is essentially the same world: a world where 'atemporals' -- people who live outside of time in one way or another -- are at war with each other, in a quiet yet eternal way -- either defending regular humans or preying on them. The Bone Clocks spanned easily a half century and included something like 6 or 7 major characters and plenty of minor ones, telling the story of a particular episode of this war.
Slade House is sort of like a spin-off of that book. It tells the story of two particular atemporals -- bad guys -- who have set up an "orison" (it's a fancy word for prayer, but not used that way in the book) to help live forever. These twins have discovered that they can leave their bodies outside of time, and astrally project into other people's bodies, essentially living forever by possessing regular people; the catch is that they have to use the souls of certain kinds of people to power this effort, and at least every nine years they have to catch a new soul.
It's those repeated efforts, 9 years apart, that form the story of Slade House. The first person lured in opens the book; an autistic or at least somewhat different boy and his mother are invited to "Slade House" by what they presume to be a rich Englishwoman, in 1979. The invite's a fake, as the twins just want the boy's soul to power their orison for another 9 years. After that, each phase of the book takes place 9 years later, and each subsequent victim is in some way linked to the first character we meet.
It sounds fantasy-ish and horror-ish, but the book comes off as neither: it reads literary; all this hocus pocus and spooky stuff is presented in the mannerisms of a literary novel, and treated as matter-of-fact. Where a horror or scifi novel might be self-consciously so, David Mitchell somehow writes both in such a manner as to feel like neither.
That said, the book is extremely creepy, if not outright scary in parts. The actual scenes where the twins are themselves and are getting the souls are almost disturbing, and because each section is told in the first person from the perspective of the victim, the reader gets to suffer along with them. Each victim is lured in with an illusory scene of what they take to be "Slade House," the house where the twins lived for a while; the house itself no longer exists and everything the victim sees is in fact projected by the twins to trap them. Each scene becomes more macabre as the victim gets further in. One in particular, in which the victim thinks she's at some sort of college Halloween party, is downright frightening. I imagine it'll be a long time before I forget the image of her fleeing in her "Miss Piggy" mask, let alone what she saw that made her run. It was nightmarish, almost literally.
One thing Mitchell does really, really, well is he makes you care about his characters -- even, sometimes, the bad guys. In The Bone Clocks and in this book, some of the victims nearly made me cry; Mitchell doesn't make every victim purely sympathetic, though. One in Slade House is a jerk cop who tries to brush off having beaten up his wife before a divorce. But somehow his fate is so bad that even he generates some sympathy. In fact, Mitchell manages to craft a story in which even the soul stealing twins are not creatures of pure evil. If you can write a book in which two creepy evil twins spend a century stealing innocent souls to stay alive forever and yet at the end the reader is all well I mean but they're not all bad, THAT is good writing.
Slade House feels how I imagine Edgar Allan Poe would write a horror story if he were alive today: it has that feel, where there's plenty of actual scares but the real horror is the underlying terror of the fact that these things exist for the victims. I love horror stories, the more disturbing and scary the better. Slade House is one of the best I've ever come across.