Slade House by David Mitchell review – like Stephen King in a fever

Think The Bone Clocks’s naughty little sister in a fright wig – all the usual Mitchell motifs are here, plus a wicked dose of hilarity

Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by MC Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever,” observes a spooked member of a university’s paranormal society in David Mitchell’s manically ingenious new novel, Slade House. It’s hard not to read the assessment as the author’s compressed verdict on his own Halloween-timed offering, but the book is much more besides.

Each fresh product of Mitchell’s soaring imagination functions as an echo chamber for both his previous ideas and his oeuvre to come, components in the grand project he calls his “uber-novel”. But while entire doctoral theses, complete with Venn diagrams, are being written about Mitchellian intertextuality, readers anticipating the heft of his earlier multi-narratives Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and most recently The Bone Clocks can step off the ghost train right here.

If this faux-scary, read-in-one-sitting crowd-pleaser has a single mission, it is to enjoy itself. Think The Bone Clocks’s naughty little sister in a fright wig, brandishing a sparkler, yelling “Boo!” – and highlighting an element of Mitchell’s talent that has been present but underexploited from the beginning of the writer’s award-studded career: a rich seam of comedy.

Only one year has elapsed since The Bone Clocks was published. The fact that Slade House germinated from a Twitter short story and blossomed into a work of just over 200 pages with such speed is evidence that time flies when you’re having a good time in a Wonderland of your own creation. Down Mitchell’s rabbit hole, the warren’s Supernatural Wing has expanded.

The good-versus-evil spirit war enacted in The Bone Clocks was its most overwrought and frustrating element, but there have always been ghosts in the Mitchell machine. Now, in a fresh riff on an old theme, the writer parodies his phantoms. Faustian pacts, shape-shifters, “psychovoltage”, soul-theft, reality bubbles, a liquid called banjax (a name almost as cheesy as Avatar’s Unobtanium), and characters who say, “I’d lay off the particle physics, doc, if I were you”: they’re all at the fun‑house party, flexing their similes and tooting their paper whistles.

While time separates the novel’s five stories, set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to the present day, place unites them. It is to Slade House, accessed via a tiny iron door in an alley, that twin soul-vampires Norah and Jonah Grayer lure their living prey. Will the deftly sketched characters we come so swiftly to care about, sometimes despite ourselves, ever emerge from the Tardis-like space they innocently enter?

“Our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter,” declares Nathan Bishop, 13 years old, and clearly on the autistic spectrum. He and his mother have been invited to a musical soiree at Slade House. Is the Valium he popped to blame for his hallucinations there, or is something more chilling at work?

Fast-forward to 1988, where sleazy, racist CID man Gordon Edmonds is researching a lead on the Bishops’ unexplained disappearance and romancing a fragrant widow. Nine years later, students from a Paranormal Society field trip enter the equation and, to add more grit to the Vaseline, as the now-vanished Edmonds would phrase it, they become fatally imperilled too. In 2006, the sister of one of them circles the same drain.

As the novellas merge and climax in the present day with the re-emergence of a key character from Mitchell’s back catalogue, familiar shadows – from Harry Potter, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Matrix, Les Enfants Terribles, The Truman Show, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, The Turn of the Screw and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – dance on the wall. To re‑cast one of Nathan Bishop’s observations: if I had 50p for every cultural nod, wink and meta-reference I’d have to get out my calculator.

“When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew,” Mitchell once told the Paris Review. Vending-machine horror tropes, believable characters, wild farce, existential jeopardy, meta-fictional jokes: into the cauldron they go. Mitchell is at home in this kitchen. Along with the movie industry, he knows that playing goosebumps for laughs is a winning formula. Horror says aloud what religious doctrine often prefers to sidestep: if you believe in cosmic good, you cannot ignore the notion of cosmic evil. Supplement fear with hilarity, and the unbearable becomes bearable. In the gathering darkness, David Mitchell’s illuminated pumpkin lamp is smiling a huge, crazed smile.

• Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited is published by Bloomsbury. To order Slade House for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Liz Jensen

The GuardianTramp

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