Jumping the Rails: On ‘Slade House’ and Not on ‘The Sixth Extinction’
By Ryan Joe
I decided to make like Colin Kaepernick’s career and jump the rails. Instead of reading this week Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction — which I’ve every intention of reading — I picked up David Mitchell’s Slade House.
I grabbed Mitchell’s haunted house/Hansel and Gretel fairy tale at the behest of our friend Chandler, who is the reason we read Edwin Mullhouse earlier this season and whose recommendations make up about a quarter of the books on my shelf.
I loved Slade House. Since it’s a recent release, I’m going to avoid spoilers.
The last haunted house novel I read was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Mitchell’s take on the genre is a neat corollary because of how different it is — unlike House of Leaves, Slade House is very meticulously structured and goes out of its way to explain the nature of the house’s haunting.
Which could have been tedious. Actually, it should have been tedious. The chapters each occur at nine-year intervals, during an “Open Day” (I think that’s what it’s called) in which a special guest is invited into the house where, like clockwork, they are trapped and meet a similar fate. Five chapters, each adhering to that structure.
I think the reason Mitchell pulls it off is that the mechanisms that entrap the victims aren’t really physical. Each trap is tailored to its victim’s insecurities. They’re psychological — and as the chapters progress, those psychological traps get more elaborate, even as the basic narrative outline (i.e. person goes in, doesn’t come out) remains consistent. And because each trap is built around its victims’ interiority, each chapter of Slade House is uniquely character-driven.
Another nifty trick: Most of the chapters play in different genres. After the opener, which establishes the house’s eerie horror, Mitchell gives us a detective potboiler, complete with the requisite femme fatale; a college dorm slasher story — though without the slasher; and a magazine interview framing an origin narrative. And I think the last chapter adheres to certain genre tropes as well, but I can’t really get into that without giving too much away.
The final thing I want to pinpoint is Mitchell’s handling of exposition. As I mentioned earlier, he actually goes out of its way to explain how the house works. And it’s not simple. So the danger is bogging down the novel with backstory — piling on an infodump that stops the narrative momentum cold.
I was talking with Chandler about Mitchell’s technique and she mentioned how in the section with the college student, Mitchell gives “accurate info about the workings of [the house], while totally misleading us at the same time…Makes me think of Penn & Teller who show you how one level of the illusion works while still having another trick up their sleeves.”