A Real Scarefest

Slade House: David Mitchell

I came into Slade House without having read the formidable back catalogue of David Mitchell that includes cult classics such as Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green and the most recent The Bone Clocks. This slim volume of a little over 200 pages displays all the inventiveness, nestled meta-fiction and compelling readability that Mitchell is known for, and can literally be finished in one sitting. 

The book opens with teenager Nathan and his mom entering the Victorian mansion Slade House, foregrounded by an impressive garden through an unremarkable iron gate with no lock. They have been invited to a musical soiree where Nathan’s mom, a gifted pianist, performs with Yehudi Menuhin, no less. Nathan is playing Fox and Hounds with Jonah, a boy of his age and the son of Norah, their host. Nathan has been popping his mom’s Valium pills on the sly, but the weird experiences he goes through can hardly be explained by the effects of Valium. What’s happening?

Here is what’s happening. Norah and Jonah are twins born in 1899 in Norfolk. The twins demonstrated clairvoyance and other psychic powers in their childhood and went through training in various occult practices to sharpen their gifts. But, what did they want to achieve with their gifts? Immortality. Why? As the author explains through the voice of Fred Pink, one of the crucial characters in the narrative, “What else matters more than not dying? Power? Gold? Sex? A million quid? A billion? A trillion? Really? They won’t buy you an extra minute when your number’s up.” Around 1934, the twins perfected their modus operandi using a series of breakthroughs enabled by their psychic powers. And it is as elaborate as they come.

First off, they could create a space called ‘lacuna’ where time stands still and they created this ‘lacuna’ in Slade House where their birth-bodies would remain safe. Next, using ‘transversion’ they could venture out of their bodies for as long as they wanted, and using ‘long-term suasioning’, their souls could move into strangers and occupy their bodies. But there was a catch. The system won’t run off mains. It runs off ‘psychovoltage’ of the ‘Engifted’, a special class of people with inherent psychic potential. Every nine years the twins have to feed themselves the soul of a special guest (the ‘Engifted’) whom they must lure into a kind of reality bubble they call an ‘orison’ and feed him or her a chemical called ‘Banjax’ that shrivels the cord fastening the soul to the body, so it can be extracted just before death.

If it sounds funny and scary at the same time, well, that’s what the book is — witty, kitschy and scary. So Nathan was the first of the ‘Engifted’ whose soul the twins feed on, the musical soiree with Yehudi Menuhin being the reality bubble or ‘orison’ they created.
The episode gets repeated every nine years and there are five such episodes meticulously plotted, each with a different narrator, set between 1979 and 2015. Each era has its own tone of narration and pop culture references that define the era.

One might think it is impossible to create characters with whom we can empathise or care for over the five episodes within so few pages. But this is where Mitchell surprises us. The victims, apart from Nathan the autistic Valium-popping boy, comprise a misogynist, a traffic warden, an obese girl who has joined a paranormal field trip to investigate the Slade House phenomenon, a lesbian journalist who is recording a source speaking on the twin soul-vampires and an African-Canadian psychiatrist who is a staunch follower of Carl Jung. Each of them are sharply etched characters and their falling into the trap laid out by the twins is full of nail-biting suspense.

There are poetic aphorisms and provocative philosophical ruminations. Sample this on grief and hope: “Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.” When the distraught traffic warden wants to know what did he do to deserve his fate, one of the twins answers, “What does ‘deserve’ have to do with anything? Did the pig whose flesh you ate at breakfast ‘deserve’ her fate?” One of the characters articulates the philosophy of ‘The Deep Stream’ as against that of ‘The Shaded Way’ which the twins follow thus: “No please, no. I have heard it so often. ‘Humanity is hardwired for survival’; ‘Might is Right is natural way’: Again and again, down the years, same old same old…from feudal lords to slave traders to oligarchs to neocons to predators like you. “

None of these stands are explored further. Within its 233 pages the Slade House is content to be a rollicking, provoking and witty read. But, knowing Mitchell’s penchant for inter-connected fiction, I am sure these will be taken up for further elaboration in one of his upcoming novels.

This review was first published the the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald on February 7, 2016

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