The front cover board of David Mitchell’s new novel, Slade House, is cut out in a squat rectangle to reveal on the facing page an intricate geometric design, the plan of the eponymous Slade House. Open the cover and even more detailed and cryptic symbols, faint scripts, and maze-like divisions are inscribed on the plan and suggest that the site will be mysterious, nay, nefarious. It is. The design promises revelations, but you have to squint to make out the signs. That in a way is the effect of the novel as a whole: psychic eye strain.

Readers of Mitchell’s previous, The Bone Clocks, will recognize the source of Slade House’s conflict, a spiritual war between the forces of light and darkness, delivered in the energetic, multi-voiced style that has made Mitchell such an entertaining writer:  witness Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green. For whatever reason Mitchell has turned his imagination towards supernatural struggle, waged by Atemporals, those few individuals whose great power allows them to defy mortality by feeding on the souls of the “engifted” to preserve their shape-shifting lives. Their adversaries [particularly one Horologist, Marinus] equally powerful, but for the plot’s sake, fewer in number, muster a reactive defense, determined to stop the disappearances unto death of the victims of those who follow “the shaded path.” They have compassion, respect life, and have resources that appear to give hope for the future. (God is not present to assist.)

A reader gets hints of the larger superstructure loosely governing this duel of giant forces  whose combat literally swallows up hapless mortals. There are ancient savants, sites of power hidden in far lands, and, it would appear, schools of learning that allow the haughtiest of actors to speak with the condescension of all arch-villains. How much is camp, how much nudges and winks us into complicity? Is Mitchell wrong-footing us throughout with his apparently technical vocabulary: psychovoltage, orisons, and banjax?

The plot is simple: the twins Jonah and Norah Grayer, born late in the nineteenth century have managed to preserve their mortal bodies by acts of spiritual or psychic energy, but they need to renew themselves every nine years by feeding on the souls of particular human beings who they recognize are engifted – suitable repositories of the soul-force that will revitalize them. They exist to feed, although they share a loose allegiance to others of their kind who follow “the shaded path.“ In sections marked off by a nine year gaps various unfortunate engifteds fall into the illusions, the orisons, forms various of Slade House, generated by the twins and are there lured, “banjaxed” – depived of their souls – and consumed by the twins. We start in 1979 and end in 2015, when the last of victims, Marinus, appears and almost destroys the malicious duo. She is the representative of the opposing side and made her appearance in the earlier The Bone Clocks but with a different gender. [Bone Clock seems a form of Anglo-Saxon kenning for Human being: The skeleton that appears after the body’s time is up.] The novel leaves Norah Grayer invading a nearby pregnant woman whose fetus will bear a succeeding feeder.

Exposition of the elaborate machinery is left to Jonah whose assumption of the character of Fred Pink allows him to reveal the truth behind appearances. He speaks in an act of hubris, delighting in the disbelief that it causes and so exercising ironic power over another victim. We have to be thankful to the author for this key to all mythologies. But the psychic apparatus is so clearly anatomized in terms that offend credulity that the mechanism of the conflict descends to role play. Who cares if the shaded or dark way appears to keep a toe hold in the world?

And that is the bewildering effect of Slade House: an intriguing and compulsive read; so much energy and engaging dialogue; shifting voices and variations of one theme – all to support such an un-weighty end.


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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