Black cats and ladders. Broken mirrors. Salt, garlic, and holy water. The devils and the relics. The haunted houses, the forbidden corridors. The places where evil pulses. David Mitchell’s horror dwells both within and beyond reality, preying on perception and predictable human impulses.
Mitchell’s masterful thriller crosses decades, introduces a variety of finely rendered characters, and serves as a ghostly appendage to “The Bone Clocks.”
No one finds the Slade House without an invitation. Unsolicited, unconsciously garnered—an invitation to a beheading. Nathan, with his Valium and his voice so like that of a young Holly Sykes. The Detective Inspector with the ex-wife and the white-knight complex. The shy college student, still nervous in her own skin. A practical journalist. A curious psychiatrist. Siblings who walk the Shaded Way.
The story of the Slade House opens in 1979 but has roots in the late-Victorian era, when religion and developing technology contradicted each other. Christianity infused the Victorian era (1814-1915), a reaction to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. However, the creation of “scientists” and scientific breakthroughs (Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” for example) during this century also discredited the Bible. People began publicly exploring the mystical by the late 1800s—seances, Spiritualism, fortune-tellers and secret societies.
For example, in 1875 Helena Blatvatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City, which aimed to unite humanity in exploring the divine powers all humans possessed. Followers included Sir Conan Doyle, and William Butler Yeats. In the1890s William Stead, an early adopter of investigative journalism, declared himself a medium communing with the afterlife. In 1898 British theater mogul Annie Horniman undertook a series of astral projection ambassadorships to other planets.
Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater (also followers of Blatvatsky) believed a combination of Hinduism and Buddhism would allow them to contact the next realm. They provided proof in 1901—a book describing symptoms of what is now known as the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, in which the mind experiences and processes sensory cues differently. (Vladimir Nabokov, for example, famously saw words as colors.)
If public fascination with the occult ever waned, The Great War (World War I) saw a resurgence after more than five and a half million soldiers died over four years. Everyone lost someone, and grief was an easy emotion to exploit. Here lives the root of the horrors contained within the Slade House: “The seances weren’t real, but the hope was.” The hope was real for a grieving mother, the guardian of the enigmatic Grayer twins, whose very existence proved the occult and provided proof of other realms.
Fiction isn’t real (so I’m told), but the emotions are. Mitchell understands human emotion, plays on desire and hope, dreams and fears—like Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. He builds tension by revealing more about Slade House, and the mysterious Grayer twins, with each chapter. Each decade that passes feels complete, even while readers want more because the characters Mitchell parades through time feel so alive—fully formed. The story isn’t real, but the feelings are. Chilling.