The Short Version: Every nine years, if you turn down a certain alleyway, you might just see a small iron door. And if you go through that door, you’ll see an impossible house. And if you see that house, Jonah and Norah Grayer will be so happy to see you – and then you’ll never leave.
The Review: When it was announced that David Mitchell had another novel coming so hot on the heels of the fantastic The Bone Clocks, folks were predictably excited. The news that it grew out of a Twitter short story admittedly confused some and made others (like me) even more excited – because what, after all, can’t Mitchell do? He’s proved himself to be a master of genre-hopping, even his less-successful moments, and the idea of him writing a short horror novel seemed almost too good to be true.
But on this cold October morning, having stayed up late to finish the book I’d only started a few hours earlier, I can tell you that it’s just the opposite: Mitchell has written a terrifically spooky and utterly thrilling Halloween treat, one that goes down like your favorite candy bar (and is over, as with the treat, all too soon).
Several author-blurbs and reviews have referenced Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as a parallel, saying that this will do for haunted-house novels what that did for ghost stories – and I assume that means make them safe for “literary” readers. I’m not so sure that’s true, seeing as the reactions to Mitchell’s swerve into hard fantasy in the fifth section of The Bone Clocks was so shockingly poorly received by the critical masses (although I personally enjoyed the hell out of it) and this book doubles down on the creations Mitchell has been teasing out throughout his oeuvre so far. There are lots of terms thrown around in this short novel, like orison and psychovoltage and banjax (a new one, I think, that I found just delightful) and if you’re unwilling to let your imagination loose, you might be less well-served by this novel’s gleeful invention.
I pity that reader, though, for missing the opportunity to just have a blast here. As with many Mitchell novels, it’s split into several sections that leapfrog through time – but there’s a pattern, this time. Every nine years, on a day late in October (often the last Saturday or around October 27th – which is, wickedly, the day the book is officially released), a character comes to Slade House and does not leave. Each vignette is well-drawn, with Mitchell hopping from a young on-the-spectrum man in 1979 to a lesbian reporter in 2006 with the same ease of voice-changing as ever. But we’ve come to expect this from Mitchell; the surprise of the book is his facility with pulse-pounding horror. Each chapter is roughly the same structure in that you can sort of expect how things will end – but each of them managed to turn the screw (as it were) one turn further, adding an element not necessarily of suspense but of further ghastliness. The 2006 chapter downright startled me, even as I began to put the turn together – and the rush of dread that floods in as the turn occurs is one of the best chills I’ve had in a long time.
Admittedly, the book has a few odd quirks about it that keep it from true perfection. There’s quite a bit of exposition doled out throughout (that 2006 chapter is largely an expository interview, although I didn’t really mind it so much at that point in the novel) and while Mitchell explains it away each time, those explanations – while admittedly very clever – felt a little too authorial. I absolutely believe they were necessary, even to those who’ve read the Mitchell back catalog, and they do hew the story closer to traditional ghost stories, the like that you might tell a child and that might expand in length as the child asks “what does that mean” and you are forced to improvise and spin a whole world out of your brain.
Not unlike an orison.
Which brings me to the final thought about this one: that Mitchell may have something in common with his warring psychoesoterics. They seek souls, tell stories, spin webs throughout time… and isn’t that what a novelist does? As realization dawns late in a story (whether weaved by a soul vampire or a talented author), don’t we feel a change in ourselves? A communion, perhaps – or, and I think most serious readers have felt this at some point, a kind of exhaustion? As though something had been sucked out of us by the book, even in a positive/ecstatic way. I felt that when I read The Bone Clocks and realized the scope of the world Mitchell has been creating (intentionally or otherwise) from his very first novel and I felt a giddy echo of it in this. I wonder about the connections, about the incredible skill of the author – and I wonder about truly nerdy things, like whether or not he’s beginning a retcon of the word “orison” (for all you Cloud Atlas readers out there) or just spinning a web greater than I can yet understand.
And I had such scary dreams last night – of a house, twins, and a threat to my very soul…
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I realize more of my own limitations these days and while I, as a reader, was delighted by the exposition dumps throughout the novel… as a critical reader and as a writer myself, I found them a little jarring. Still, this is a very small price to pay for such a terrific haunted house novel. Mitchell captures the October spirit while retaining the universe he’s been building for so long and his skill with breath-taking, gasp-inducing moments of thrilling fright is just another to add to his impossible array of talents. Read this one in a sitting, preferably on a cold night under an October moon – and don’t trust the dreams that follow. But definitely do enjoy them.