Book Review: Slade House by David Mitchell
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Every week of 2016 I am going to read and review a book. This means that while you may not always get an in depth dissection whatever my gut reaction to a book was will be presented here without time softening my opinions.
Often when a mainstream author comes to genre fiction it is with a sense of contempt for the existing writers within that ghetto, expressed through a lack of familiarity with the material. That doesn't feel like it is the case with Slade House. Although the author seems to be blissfully unaware of the conventions of the urban fantasy and horror genres it is firmly to the book's advantage. The book centres on a mysterious house that can only be accessed for one day every nine years. The titular Slade House, located in an a little alleyway in London, is home to a pair of spectral vampires who steal the soul of one psychically gifted person every nine years to sustain their unlife.
So far, so bland.
David Mitchell's books have always had a long time span to cover, whether it is the prequel to this book, The Bone Clocks, which stretches out over the length of an abnormal lifetime or the Cloud Atlas which covered the majority of human history, or at least felt like it. The format of this book is by necessity stretched out into short burst of time through the years while access to Slade House is viable. Each section is written from the perspective of one of the victims and the distinct voices of each of these characters is what really got me hooked. From the autistic boy in the seventies to the sleazy copper in the eighties and onwards, each successive generation of victims gives you a little more information about the house and creeps just a little towards defeating the selfish evil that lives there. All while still engaging you in their unique experience.
The lack of knowledge of the genre allows the author to construct his own language to describe the supernatural elements of the story and he does an excellent job, giving just enough information for us to understand what is happening without bogging down the experiences of his characters.
But for all that Mitchell's characters are fascinating his plot is very sloppy. There is a dump of the villains' entire history during one of the later cycles which is pointed out in the story to have been pointless and stupid. Acknowledging a fault in your writing is not the same as correcting it. The actual resolution to the story does not come from the characters that we have been engaged with from the outset. It comes in the form of another supernatural character, more powerful than the villains, almost a literal Deus ex Machina. It robbed the protagonists of closure and it rendered their terrible experiences meaningless.
The book was excellent in its earlier parts but the set up never paid off and while I am sure fans of his other books were excited about the inclusion of elements from the Bone Clocks, for a reader just trying to enjoy the story presented here they were a bit out of the left field.
More than anything this book reminded me of the work of James Herbert, with its clear focus on developing doomed characters and its disregard for any need for resolution. Unfortunately, while Herbert used a lack of closure to produce twist endings Mitchell uses a twist ending to produce a lack of closure.