Houses of Shadow: From Poe to Mitchell

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David Mitchell is one of those literary conjurers who creates worlds alongside this world as he toys with time and space. Most famously in the novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, he dazzles, yet with such exuberance and wit that you forgive him any excess flourishes. And like his compatriots Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and Matthew Kneale (When We Were Romans), Mitchell is, above all, a masterful portraitist of childhood. “Dad’s office smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too…There’s a serious clock on the wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school,” the narrator of the refreshingly plain Black Swan Green begins.  And here, in Mitchell’s slim new novel Slade House, is thirteen year-old Nathan Bishop. “Whatever Mum’s saying is drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away…The damp sky’s the color of old hankies.”

On an autumn day in London in 1979, Rita and Nathan Bishop search for Slade House, where the hapless Rita has been invited to a musical gathering. Suddenly, behind a tiny door, there it is. Grand house, sunny garden, aristocratic hostess, a boy Nathan’s age and…..Yehudi Menuhin eager to join Rita in a duet. Silly? Certainly. But we eagerly accompany Nathan, whose forensic gaze misses nothing. “Mum’s eyes have tiny red veins like rivers photographed from very high up,” he notices out on the street, then moments later a dead cat, “…as still as a dropped bag,” holds his attention. Anxious and bullied, his father absent, Nathan is a familiar Mitchell character: the child buffeted by reality and then by something even more terrifying. “A slit of light opens its eye and becomes a long flame,” he sees when Slade House unveils its true nature, “…Three faces hang in the gloom.” Ghosts? Vampires? Shape shifters? A bit of each, Mitchell reveals in the novel’s subsequent four episodes.

Set nine years apart, each linked drama is a variation on the first. In 1988, for example, foulmouthed Detective Inspector Gordon Edwards is lured to Slade House by its impractical mistress (“Jesus Christ the rich are bloody hopeless”) and here, as in Nathan’s case, Mitchell’s pungent evocation of Edwards’ life vivifies the increasingly outlandish narrative. “I thought of my flat, of the washing-up in the sink, of the leaking radiator, of the copy of Playboy stashed behind the radiator, and wished I was inside Slade House now, looking over the twilit garden…” the smitten copper admits. And soon he is, with horrifying consequences. In 1997, Sally Timms, along with five other members of her college’s “Paranormal Society,” find a student party in full swing at Slade House, one from which Sally will not return. Nine years later, Sally’s journalist sister interviews a shady informant who claims to know what happened to each of the vanished victims and finally, in 2005, all is revealed in a baroque denouement that returns the undead of Slade House to the womb. Or rather to a womb. By then, however, we have lost sight of Nathan and the other mortals who briefly anchored Mitchell’s clever yet flimsy variation on the haunted house tale.

 

In the Shadow of Edgar Allen Poe: Classic Tales of Terror 1816-1914, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, returns us to the largely humorless heyday of horror fiction when no self-respecting ghost would have traded wisecracks as Mitchell’s villains do. Instead, the ghouls in this selection of twenty tales by Ambrose Bierce, Theophile Gautier, Sarah Orne Jewett, Bram Stoker and M.R. James among others content themselves with the familiar nocturnal routine of moaning, bumping about and occasionally mauling (but rarely eating) the terrified protagonist.

“It was plain that the feet that produced it were perfectly bare,” Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s hero reports of a sound on the stairs, “measuring the descent with something between a pound and a flop, very ugly to hear.” Never mind that le Fanu’s “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Augier Street” is a creaky old shocker. There’s that vile “flop” produced, we soon learn, by “the most monstrous grey rat…” and the natural world, as so often in these stories, matching the supernatural for horror. In Robert W. Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign,” for example, an artist encounters a repulsive stranger who “turned away his puffy face with a movement that made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.” (The image recalling that of the fiend in an M.R. James story, “Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance,” that emerges from flesh “…with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple.”) Few writers, of course, equal M.R. James, Cambridge scholar and master of the ghost story, when it comes to depicting abomination. And the story included here, “Lost Hearts,” with its child victims and its crazed reclusive professor, is one of his most desolate. Indeed, when Abney writes, “I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emancipated existence which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me…” his dry words are more terrifying than any scream.

There are some real clunkers in this anthology – “The Squaw” by Bram Stoker, “The Easter Egg” by Saki and “The Corpse Rider” by Lafcadio Hearn, for example – and Klinger’s inclusion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” long faded through over-exposure, seems as odd as the choice of “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin’s tenuous parable on racism. But E.T.A Hoffmann’s “The Sand Man” remains as weirdly affecting – and psychologically illuminating — as any of the darker folk tales while Arthur Conan-Doyle’s “The Leather Funnel” surely reveals more about a sadomasochistic strain of misogyny in the English upper class than its author ever intended. Most successful of all are the plain tales, plainly told, of longing as much as fear. “We know when it is night,” the ghost in Ambrose Bierce’s “The Moonlit Road,” declares, “for then you retire to your houses and we can…move unafraid about our hold homes, to look in at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon your faces as you sleep.”

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