Literary Critique

Slade House: Embrace the Frustration

There comes a time in every reader’s life when you come across a book at precisely the right moment. That is the case with David Mitchell’s Slade House. A twisted blend of horror and sci-fi and detective fiction, Slade House challenges narrative conventions and plot structure in a way that entices you read the next chapter, and then the next one as you search for answers about this mysterious Slade House. In order to fully appreciate the story Mitchell is telling, it is necessary to throw all preconceived notions of what a novel is out the window. Otherwise you will set yourself up for disappointment, because Slade House doesn’t work in a traditionally linear fashion. As readers, you are doing a lot of the leg work trying to piece together clues from past chapters in order to make sense of what is and is not real, and the line between the two is always blurred.

The focal point of Slade House is a house of the same name. Situated beyond a small door in a brick wall in a precariously narrow alley that is only accessible by certain people, once every nine years. Now I’m sure that sounds confusing and it definitely is at first. Why this place exists where it does, why it only happens every nine years, and why these people are chosen is never explained in great detail. But once those that are chosen go through the iron door, they slowly find it impossible to leave; eventually having their soul devoured by twins with vague motives that remain a mystery for much of the novel. Like many other reviewers have pointed out, Mitchell crafts his story in a way that blends the real and surreal, making it difficult to tease them apart. Ron Charles touches on the idea of “mental manipulation” that Mitchell employs by writing, “The novel isn’t nearly so headache-inducing as that suggests, but Mitchell is something of a magician, with fluid moments of mental manipulation. When Norah and Jonah bend their plastic world, their victims begin to see things through ‘kaleidoscopic drug-tinted spectacles’” (Charles). Mitchell seems to love keeping his readers uninformed, misled, and in the dark about a lot of key information. The amount of uncertainty readers feel makes Slade House that much scarier.
Working in a coil-like fashion, the structure of Slade House is constantly referencing and calling back to previous chapters in order to move the plot forward. For some, it might feel like swimming against the current, reading page after page and making no progress, but this is deliberate on the part of Mitchell. In reference to how Mitchell has the twins describe the soul-sucking process of their victims, Jason Sheehan of NPR writes:
And does any of this bother me even a little bit? No, it does not. Because Mitchell knows he’s doing all this. Because he is very aware of every trick he’s lifting from a thousand scary stories come before and he faces them down with characters who are just as jaded, just as suspicious and just as disbelieving of all this nonsense as we are — right up until they realize that the trap has been sprung on them, too (Sheehan).

Time and time again, we can’t help but put ourselves in the shoes of the victim. Like Sheehan says, we get caught up in the story and don’t realize that there’s no way out until “the trap has been sprung.” It’s brilliant writing on the part of Mitchell that he can keep you coming back chapter after chapter. As the story progresses, each new character that is introduced is directly related to the victims of the preceding chapters. Some readers might find Mitchell’s characterization of characters from chapter to chapter repetitive, and I would tend to agree, but this repetition is necessary and compelling as it allows the reader to peel back the layers from a different perspective, allowing them to understand the complexities of Slade House and the otherworldly things that go on there.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding Slade House. Questions are left unanswered as the reader is thrust into this strange world. Slade House doesn’t waste any time getting right into the thick of things, waiting until much later in the novel to reveal the questions that have been bugging readers, and even then, it’s done so in a twisted way, throwing the reader for a loop in yet another in a series of seemingly predictable twists. That’s the beauty of this novel; you start to notice patterns but every single time you are brought right back to the same place with different characters, expecting a different result.
For those that say Slade House is confusing because of the repetition and feel like they aren’t being rewarded for their continued reading are likely in the wrong mindset to tackle a novel that goes against everything a novel is supposed to be. Having expectations of resolution and satisfaction by the time you reach the last page will leave you disappointed. My film professor, when introducing the French New Wave to our class told us something that applies this postmodern text. The only way you are going to get invested and fully appreciate the works of French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard is to treat it not like traditional films that resolve everything by the end, but like films that aren’t going to spell everything out for you and leave you with more questions than answers by the end. Slade House does exactly this. It doesn’t pretend to be anything but completely unique and unlike any text you’ve read. Mitchell passes off the surreal and inexplicable as nothing out of the ordinary, and the characters embrace it, at least for a time. Slade House itself is a physical impossibility but characters like Nathan go along with it. As a reader, you’re left wondering how characters aren’t immediately skeptical, but suspending your belief is part of the fun of Slade House. Scarlett Thomas of the New York Times, in an attempt to make a case for Slade House, writes on the lack of resolution that Slade House relishes in. She writes, “Not everyone will want answers to all these questions, and reading doesn’t always have to be a grand excavation. Mitchell is as compulsive as ever, and even if you end up flinging his latest at the wall, you will have a good time first. Just don’t expect it to make any sense” (Thomas). Similar to the way my film professor pitched the French New Wave to us, I think this type of “warning” about the nature of Slade House is good for readers and will further prepare them to sink their teeth into a novel that might not fully make sense. Allowing yourself to be immersed in the chaos is the key to being able to really dig into this book. The ending isn’t wrapped up with a bow like other novels, but left open-ended, which is likely to leave many cold and without a sense of fulfillment, but that is precisely the point. After all of the magical and unimaginable events unfold, the most realistic aspect of Slade House is its lack of resolution. Isn’t it fair to say that life doesn’t present itself and solve its problems in a neat and tidy manner like many books depict? Mitchell is going against everything a reader comes to expect from a novel.

It might sound difficult to get attached to characters if they only stick around for one chapter and then never return, but that shouldn’t really matter. Sure, if you go into it expecting to follow the first character, Nathan, all the way through to the end and see his full character arc, then yes, it’s not going to be as enjoyable, but if you go into it prepared to get glimpses of a cast of very different characters, then it’s easy to get roped in to each characters encounter at Slade House. For what it’s worth, Mitchell does a surprising amount of character development in each chapter even though they don’t have the full character arc of a traditional novel character. I found myself getting easily attached to characters I had only known for half of a chapter because I wanted them to have a different fate than the last. Repeatedly having the rug pulled from under you as you get attached to each character is a unique and exhilarating experience.

Slade House plays with genre tropes, namely horror by playing on its characters inner most desires rather than their fears. Mitchell doesn’t fill Slade House with scary images of their past, forcing them to confront and overcome them, but fills them with what they want the most, and seduces them into an inescapable situation. This type of horror is especially scary because in general, I think people hold their desires closer to them than their fears. To have their soul taken from them as a result of being seduced by their desire for love, friendship, stability, or truth is powerful imagery, as the soul is who someone truly is and a person’s desires say a lot about who they truly are. Knowing something this personal about a character allows the reader to identify more closely with a character who feels like a stranger.

My goal is not to turn readers off this novel simply because it’s different. I actually hope people embrace it for all of its idiosyncrasies. Slade House is a unique and unforgettable reading experience that rewards you for embracing the constant misdirection and frustration that comes with reading it. Mitchell offers up a mind-boggling treat that blends genres and isn’t afraid to keep readers guessing. As one of the characters describes the experience of having their soul removed from their body, Slade House makes you feel like you are “plunging upwards” (Mitchell 80), an inexplicable oxymoron that perfectly captures the experience of reading this book.

Works Cited
Charles, Ron. “David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’: A ghost story that began haunting Twitter.” The Washington Post, 28 October 2015.
Garner, Dwight. “Review: David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’ Plunges Into a Battle of Immortals.” The New York Times, 22 October 2015.
Mitchell, David. Slade House. Random House, 2015.
Sheehan, Jason. “It’s Coming From Inside The House … ‘Slade House,’ That Is.” NPR, 28 October 2015.

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