At a table at a skuzzy pub just up the street from the haunted house, a journalist sits, listening to her source ramble on and on about mysterious disappearances, ancient secrets, strange conspiracies and immortality.
She's being good. Has promised that she will listen, and she's trying her best. But it's all so very ... cheesy. Or maybe not cheesy, exactly, but certainly derivative, troped-out and, somehow, comfortingly familiar.
"What I see is the wackometer needle climbing," she thinks, as her subject drones on about creepy twins, "psychic vampires" and then — wait a minute — did she just drink that tonic water in front of her? Didn't the last person to go missing around here drink something first, too?
This is Slade House, the newest novel from David Mitchell — who wrote the beautifully twisty Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. He's a stylist, a seemingly effortless imaginer of weirded-up nonsense and navigator extraordinaire of the multiple POV school of plots and schemery. As a matter of fact, "beautifully twisty" is pretty much Mitchell's trademark these days. And Slade House does nothing to tarnish his rep.
It's a horror novel. A ghost story. A haunted house book through and through (which is something you just don't see that much anymore), that covers the years 1979 to 2015 with check-ins every nine years and a different main character with each revolution.
Why nine years? Because every nine years the Ghosty McGuffin's Magical Nonsense Generator operating in the spooky house's attic must be recharged with fresh soul energy. Because every nine years a new "engifted" person must be lured through the magical doorway to Slade House (which, also, only appears every nine years because MAGIC!) to be tricked, drugged and devoured by the creepy, bickering, wise-ass twins who "live" there in order to keep them immortal for another almost-decade.
Is it all totally ridiculously contrived and Movie-Of-The-Week goofy? Yes. Does Mitchell explain the mechanics of his soul vampires and one-house Brigadoon with large swaths of expository dialog that occasionally contain lines like, "First off, they perfected the lacuna ... Second, they enhanced the transversion their Sayyid'd taught them — what the New Age jokers call astral projection — so they could venture out from their bodies as far as they wanted for as long as they wanted. Third, they mastered long-term suasioning, so their souls could move into a stranger..."? He certainly does. 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.
The story is told through the repeating mechanic of a dozen-some disappearances over 36 years. That reporter mentioned up top? She's trying to find her sister — who disappeared nine years before her own fateful night in that pub near Slade Alley and Slade House — and she spends forty-odd pages making (internal) fun of the crazy old man telling her stories about astral projection and immortal vampires.
Standing in for the audience, she mentally scoffs and guffaws while he spools out his exposition, and we're right there with her, disbelieving everything, until we notice the little details Mitchell has dropped. Like the clock ticking over to 9pm (the hour at which the mystery house takes form) and her sipping at her tonic water (just after the crazy old man tells her that one of the things the twins must get their victims to do is eat or drink something before murdering them and drinking their souls like milkshakes).
The less you know about that going in the better, because all the joy in Slade House is in the discovery. It's in seeing different people make the same mistakes over and over again — in seeing the same story play out, the same weaknesses be preyed upon, the same arrogance of the twins who have been doing this for decades. It's in thinking that you'd be smarter, of course. That you'd see through all this B-movie schlock (like creepy portraits, sad ghosts and stairways that go nowhere), find the secret door, and escape.
Only to find that you're already trapped. That you missed the trick a few pages back, a few minutes ago, and that you, too, have now become just another guest at Slade House.
Just another meal for the nightmare machine.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.