Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

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If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

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Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

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Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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“I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror.”

The Turn of the Screw tells a ghost story set in a haunted house. Good. Our protagonist is a woman who has been given charge of two unsettlingly perfect children, and she may or may not be going mad. Great!

So what happened? How did Henry James create the literary equivalent of Nyquil out of such an exciting premise?

There is, buried deep, a chilling story here, with plot-twists, difficult choices, and keen lines which express the constantly frayed emotions of our dismayed protagonist. This would be easier to review if nothing had happened plot-wise, because then the utter boredom a book as fast-paced and psychologically insightful as this would have had a stylistic point that could be blamed.

The problem is that sentences wind and curl around what they’re trying to say until you’re too distracted to care anymore. After ten pages, you’re confused; after fifteen, you’re irritated; after twenty, you’re asleep.

James keeps you guessing as to whether the threat is coming from the supernatural or the narrator’s own mind, and you can reverse-engineer the popularization of a number of modern horror tropes to this novel. But maybe its success is why it’s such a slog to finish now, despite the tiny length. If so many modern stories hadn’t plundered the best elements, there might be more to distract from the writing itself; instead, this book becomes yet another example of Seinfeld is Unfunny.  

It’s not simply a product of its time, though. There are authors just as verbose who have managed sophisticated, layered writing without accidentally creating a cure for insomnia. For example, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Eliot are all enhanced by their layered and elevated prose, not smothered in it. As it is, The Turn of the Screw’s fascinating premise was crushed under the weight of James’ waffling.

 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“…and there you have it, another body on the floor surrounded by things that don’t mean much to anyone except to the one who can’t take any of them along. ” There is nothing as unsettling as not knowing what the hell is going on.

House of Leaves takes some fairly standard horror tropes – a wealthy family moving into a new home, moving hallways, encroaching insanity – and slides them into a book about a book about a book about an academic analysis of a film (called The Navidson Record), and because it’s all smart, tense, and inventive, this novel is far more engaging than it sounds.

There’s something wrong with the house the film takes place in. Something very, very wrong.

Danielewski is determined to make you afraid of the dark. Adult fears are made explicitly metaphorical as the house plays on characters’ insecurities and baggage, which gives a focus to the narrative as things get stranger and stranger.

I very rarely get scared when reading books (horror games are another matter). That’s why it was so surprising that while reading this thing, during a couple of moments, I felt true fear gnaw at me rather than the nervous excitement which horror stories normally draw out. It’s also very well paced, as I tore through this thing in around a week. I just had to know what happened.

This is a very, very flawed book though. The sections with Johnny Truant are almost the complete opposites of those about The Navidson Record, for what I’m guessing are tenuous thematic purposes: instead of academic, the tone is casual; instead of claustrophobic or daunting, things are grounded; instead of carefully written, things are sappy and dull. Truant’s prose is painfully cliché times, particularly when it comes to descriptions of women (“blue eyes, like sea-ice”, “eyes would sparkle like the Northern sky”, “everything about her shimmered”), and Danielewski tries to use a stream-of-consciousness style that falls flat. The contrast of the cool academic analysis of The Navidson Record only makes this worse by comparison. I literally groaned out loud more than once when I realised another lengthy Truant section was starting. The formatting changes later in The Navidson Record in the book might also come across as gimmicky if you’re not in a generous mood.

When House of Leaves works, it’s because Danielewski understands how to cleverly subvert readers’ expectations. He plays on our assumptions about genre and the world around us and shreds them, placing them back together with masking tape, out of order, and with confusing annotations. This book just shoots too high sometimes, and becomes pretty silly for stretches as a result. It’s still worth a read, particularly if you’re in the mood for something experimental, just bear in mind you’ll need patience.

Annihilaton by Jeff VanderMeer

“That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”

Annihilation is a horror/sci-fi which takes place in “Area X”, a strange ecosystem that’s been cut off from the rest of the world by a border which stretches the minds of those who try to cross it.

Tension is the emotion at the heart of this story. How far can you be pushed and changed before your own self crumbles? There was a lot going on under the surface of this novel, and a Lovecraft-esque atmosphere helps push the question as to what humans can and cannot understand.

The prose is strong (for the most part) and I got through it quickly because of the excellent pacing, so I’m looking forward to the sequels. I’ll be hoping for more actual horror and less inner dialogue about how terrifying everything is.