The horror, the horror. — Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Slade House, the latest novel by David Mitchell, is a story in five parts. Each part details the fate of a different character as he or she is drawn to a mysterious black iron door that appears every nine years, as if by magic, in a narrow alley off Westwood Road in London. The door leads through a brick wall to a sprawling garden much too big for the neighborhood, and at the far end of the garden sits an imposing Victorian manor—Slade House—that somehow can’t be seen from the street. Only a special type of person can unlock the magical door in the alley—a person “Engifted” with psychic powers. What happens to the Engifted inside the house isn’t for the faint of heart.
If this sounds like the setup for a horror story, that’s because it is. Mitchell has never hesitated to appropriate the tropes of a genre if they serve his purposes, and with Slade House he does it again, this time following in the footsteps of Poe, Lovecraft, and King with obvious delight. While it isn’t as ambitious or substantial as some of his previous works, notably Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, the novel nonetheless covers some interesting philosophical ground, posing questions about greed, privilege, and power that are all too timely in an era of widening economic inequality and persistent social injustice.
The mysterious Slade House is inhabited by a pair of Engifted twins, Norah and Jonah, who have found a way to use their psychic powers to create a gap in time, what they call a “lacuna,” where their bodies no longer age. As long as their bodies persist within the lacuna, they are effectively immortal, and they are free to roam the world by projecting their consciousness into other bodies. But sustaining the lacuna and commandeering other bodies steadily drains the twins’ psychic energy, or “psychovoltage,” so that every nine years they have to replenish themselves in order to keep the lacuna stable. And how do Norah and Jonah replenish their psychovoltage? By consuming the souls of other Engifteds.
Fans of The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s sixth novel, will be nodding along here. The twins’ modus operandi identifies them as Anchorites, a sect of quasi-immortal soul vampires who are the villains in the universe Mitchell has created from the overlapping plots and characters of his novels. The über-backstory of the Anchorites and their sworn enemies, the Horologists, could easily overwhelm the plot of Slade House, but Mitchell wisely allows the novel to stand on its own. He reveals just enough to shed light on how Norah and Jonah became what they are, and the rest is left for the reader to discover in The Bone Clocks.
Beyond its premise, I was fascinated by the structure of Slade House. Each of the five parts could almost stand alone as a short story. (In fact, Mitchell originally published a slightly different version of the first part, “The Right Sort,” as a series of tweets on Twitter.) Again and again, an Engifted character is lured to the house by a psychic illusion. Norah and Jonah tailor these illusions to play on the hopes, fears, and insecurities of their victims. The victim intuitively resists, necessitating the creation of an illusion-within-an-illusion, which tricks the victim into imbibing a special potion that prepares the soul for extraction. Finally spellbound in the lacuna, the victim can only watch helplessly while the twins devour his or her soul. Norah and Jonah are nourished, the lacuna recharged. Rinse and repeat nine years later.
At first I wondered if this repetitive pattern in the action might be unnecessary, but with each subsequent variation I came to appreciate how the repetition ultimately enables Mitchell to evoke an atmosphere of dread and to modulate the tension of a scene based on how and when he deviates from the established pattern, similar to the effect of a musical theme and variations in the classical sonata form. Mitchell executes this technique masterfully from beginning to end, including a pitch-perfect coda that is a callback to one of the greatest horror/suspense endings of all time. In Slade House, the payoff is equal parts satisfying and frustrating—just the right combination to lure you back for Mitchell’s next novel.