The New York Times bestseller by the author of The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas | Named One of the Best Books of the Year by San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, National Post, BookPage, and Kirkus Reviews
Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.
Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents—an odd brother and sister—extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late. . . .
Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story—as only David Mitchell could imagine it.
Praise for Slade House
“A fiendish delight . . . Mitchell is something of a magician.”—The Washington Post
“Entertainingly eerie . . . We turn to [Mitchell] for brain-tickling puzzle palaces, for character studies and for language.”—Chicago Tribune
“A ripping yarn . . . Like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining, [Slade House] is a thin sliver of hell designed to entrap the unwary. . . . As the Mitchellverse grows ever more expansive and connected, this short but powerful novel hints at still more marvels to come.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Like Stephen King in a fever . . . manically ingenious.”—The Guardian (U.K.)
“A haunted house story that savors of Dickens, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling and H. P. Lovecraft, but possesses more psychic voltage than any of them.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Tightly crafted and suspenseful yet warmly human . . . the ultimate spooky nursery tale for adults.”—The Huffington Post
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of Slade House, The Bone Clocks, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell translated from the Japanese the internationally bestselling memoir The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
The Right Sort
Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds. The sign shows three beagles cornering a fox. They’re about to pounce and rip it apart. A street sign underneath says westwood road. Lords and ladies are supposed to be rich, so I was expecting swimming pools and Lamborghinis, but Westwood Road looks pretty normal to me. Normal brick houses, detached or semidetached, with little front gardens and normal cars. The damp sky’s the color of old hankies. Seven magpies fly by. Seven’s good. Mum’s face is inches away from mine, though I’m not sure if that’s an angry face or a worried one.
“Nathan? Are you even listening?” Mum’s wearing makeup today. That shade of lipstick’s called Morning Lilac but it smells more like Pritt Stick than lilacs. Mum’s face hasn’t gone away, so I say, “What?”
“It’s ‘Pardon’ or ‘Excuse me.’ Not ‘What?’ ”
“Okay,” I say, which often does the trick.
Not today. “Did you hear what I told you?”
“ ‘It’s “Pardon” or “Excuse me.” Not “What?” ’ ”
“Before that! I said, if anyone at Lady Grayer’s asks how we came here, you’re to tell them we arrived by taxi.”
“I thought lying was wrong.”
“There’s lying,” says Mum, fishing out the envelope she wrote the directions on from her handbag, “which is wrong, and there’s creating the right impression, which is necessary. If your father paid what he’s supposed to pay, we really would have arrived by taxi. Now . . .” Mum squints at her writing. “Slade Alley leads off Westwood Road, about halfway down . . .” She checks her watch.
“Right, it’s ten to three, and we’re due at three. Chop-chop. Don’t dawdle.” Off Mum walks.
I follow, not stepping on any of the cracks. Sometimes I have to guess where the cracks are because the pavement’s mushy with fallen leaves. At one point I had to step out of the way of a man with huge fists jogging by in a black and orange tracksuit. Wolverhampton Wanderers play in black and orange. Shining berries hang from a mountain ash. I’d like to count them, but the clip-clop-clip-clop of Mum’s heels pulls me on. She bought the shoes at John Lewis’s sale with the last of the money the Royal College of Music paid her, even though British Telecom sent a final reminder to pay the telephone bill. She’s wearing her dark blue concert outfit and her hair up with the silver fox-head hairpin. Her dad brought it back from Hong Kong after World War Two. When Mum’s teaching a student and I have to make myself scarce, I sometimes go to Mum’s dressing table and get the fox out. He’s got jade eyes and on some days he smiles, on others he doesn’t. I don’t feel well knitted today, but the Valium should kick in soon. Valium’s great. I took two pills. I’ll have to miss a few next week so Mum won’t notice her supply’s going down. My tweed jacket’s scratchy. Mum got it from Oxfam specially for today, and the bow tie’s from Oxfam, too. Mum volunteers there on Mondays so she can get the best of the stuff people bring in on Saturdays. If Gaz Ingram or anyone in his gang sees me in this bow tie, I’ll find a poo in my locker, guaranteed. Mum says I have to learn how to Blend In more, but there aren’t any classes for Blending In, not even on the town library notice board. There’s a Dungeons & Dragons club advertised there, and I always want to go, but Mum says I can’t because Dungeons & Dragons is playing with dark forces. Through one front window I see horse racing. That’s Grandstand on BBC1. The next three windows have net curtains, but then I see a TV with wrestling on it. That’s Giant Haystacks the hairy baddie fighting Big Daddy the bald goodie on ITV. Eight houses later I see Godzilla on BBC2. He knocks down a pylon just by blundering into it and a Japanese fireman with a sweaty face is shouting into a radio. Now Godzilla’s picked up a train, which makes no sense because amphibians don’t have thumbs. Maybe Godzilla’s thumb’s like a panda’s so-called thumb, which is really an evolved claw. Maybe—
“Nathan!” Mum’s got my wrist. “What did I say about dawdling?”
I check back. “ ‘Chop-chop!’; ‘Don’t dawdle.’ ”
“So what are you doing now?”
“Thinking about Godzilla’s thumbs.”
Mum shuts her eyes. “Lady Grayer has invited me—us—to a musical gathering. A soirée. There’ll be people who care about music there. People from the Arts Council, people who award jobs, grants.” Mum’s eyes have tiny red veins like rivers photographed from very high up. “I’d rather you were at home playing with your Battle of the Boers landscape too, but Lady Grayer insisted you come along, so . . . you have to act normal. Can you do that? Please? Think of the most normal boy in your class, and do what he’d do.”
Acting Normal’s like Blending In. “I’ll try. But it’s not the Battle of the Boers, it’s the Boer War. Your ring’s digging into my wrist.”
Mum lets go of my wrist. That’s better.
I don’t know what her face is saying.
Slade Alley’s the narrowest alley I’ve ever seen. It slices between two houses, then vanishes left after thirty paces or so. I can imagine a tramp living there in a cardboard box, but not a lord and lady.
“No doubt there’ll be a proper entrance on the far side,” says Mum. “Slade House is only the Grayers’ town residence. Their proper home’s in Cambridgeshire.”
If I had 50p for every time Mum’s told me that, I’d now have £3.50. It’s cold and clammy in the alley like White Scar Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. Dad took me when I was ten. I find a dead cat lying on the ground at the first corner. It’s gray like dust on the moon. I know it’s dead because it’s as still as a dropped bag, and because big flies are drinking from its eyes. How did it die? There’s no bullet wound or fang marks, though its head’s at a slumped angle so maybe it was strangled by a cat-strangler. It goes straight into the Top Five of the Most Beautiful Things I’ve Ever Seen. Maybe there’s a tribe in Papua New Guinea who think the droning of flies is music. Maybe I’d fit in with them. “Come along, Nathan.” Mum’s tugging my sleeve.
I ask, “Shouldn’t it have a funeral? Like Gran did?”
“No. Cats aren’t human beings. Come along.”
“Shouldn’t we tell its owner it won’t be coming home?”
“How? Pick it up and go along Westwood Road knocking on all the doors saying, ‘Excuse me, is this your cat?’ ”
Mum sometimes has good ideas. “It’d take a bit of time, but—”
“Forget it, Nathan—we’re due at Lady Grayer’s right now.”
“But if we don’t bury it, crows’ll peck out its eyes.”
“We don’t have a spade or a garden round here.”
“Lady Grayer should have a spade and a garden.”
Mum closes her eyes again. Maybe she’s got a headache. “This conversation is over.” She pulls me away and we go down the middle section of Slade Alley. It’s about five houses long, I’d guess, but hemmed in by brick walls so high you can’t see anything. Just sky. “Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door,” says Mum, “set into the right-hand wall.” But we walk all the way to the next corner, and it’s ninety-six paces exactly, and thistles and dandelions grow out of cracks, but there’s no door. After the right turn we go another twenty paces until we’re out on the street parallel to Westwood Road. A sign says cranbury avenue. Parked opposite’s a St. John ambulance.
Someone’s written clean me in the dirt above the back wheel. The driver’s got a broken nose and he’s speaking into a radio. A mod drives past on a scooter like off Quadrophenia, riding without a helmet. “Riding without a helmet’s against the law,” I say.
“Makes no sense,” says Mum, staring at the envelope.
“Unless you’re a Sikh with a turban. Then the police’ll—”
“ ‘A small black iron door’: I mean . . . how did we miss it?”
I know. For me, Valium’s like Asterix’s magic potion, but it makes Mum dopey. She called me Frank yesterday—Dad’s name—and didn’t notice. She gets two prescriptions for Valium from two doctors because one’s not enough, but—
—a dog barks just inches away and I’ve shouted and jumped back in panic and peed myself a bit, but it’s okay, it’s okay, there’s a fence, and it’s only a small yappy dog, it’s not a bull mastiff, it’s not that bull mastiff, and it was only a bit of pee. Still, my heart’s hammering like mad and I feel like I might puke. Mum’s gone out into Cranbury Avenue to look for big gates to a big house, and hasn’t even noticed the yappy dog. A bald man in overalls walks up, carrying a bucket and a pair of stepladders over his shoulder. He’s whistling “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony).”
Mum cuts in. “Excuse me, do you know Slade House?”
The whistling and the man stop. “Do I know What House?”
“Slade House. It’s Lady Norah Grayer’s residence.”
“No idea, but if you find Her Ladyship, tell her I fancy a bit o’ posh if she fancies a bit o’ rough.” He tells me, “Love the dickie bow, son,” and turns into Slade Alley, picking up his whistling where he left off. Mum looks at his back, muttering, “Thanks a heap for bloody nothing.”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to say ‘bloody’—”
“Don’t start, Nathan. Just—don’t.”
I think that’s Mum’s angry face. “Okay.”
The dog’s stopped yapping to lick its willy. “We’ll backtrack,” Mum decides. “Maybe Lady Grayer meant the next alley along.” She goes back into Slade Alley and I follow. We reach the middle section in time to see the stepladder man vanish around the corner of the far end, where the moon-gray cat’s still lying dead. “If someone killed you down here,” I remark, “nobody’d see.”
Mum ignores me. Maybe it wasn’t very Normal. We’re halfway down the middle bit when Mum stops: “I’ll be jiggered!” There’s a small black iron door, set into the brick wall. It’s small all right. I’m four feet eleven inches, and it’s only up to my eyes. A fat person’d need to squeeze hard to get through. It has no handle, keyhole, or gaps around the edges. It’s black, nothing-black, like the gaps between stars. “How on earth did we miss that?” says Mum. “Some Boy Scout you are.”
“I’m not in the Scouts anymore,” I remind her. Mr. Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter. I’d been on the local news and everything. Everyone was angry, but I was only following orders.
Mum pushes the door, but it stays shut. “How on earth does the bally thing open? Perhaps we ought to knock.”
The door pulls my palm up against it. It’s warm.
And as it swings inwards, the hinges shriek like brakes . . .
. . . and we’re looking into a garden; a buzzing, still-summery garden. The garden’s got roses, toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies, clumps of foxgloves, and lots of flowers I can’t name. There’s a rockery, a pond, bees grazing and butterflies. It’s epic. “Cop a load of that,” says Mum. Slade House is up at the top, old, blocky, stern and gray and half smothered by fiery ivy, and not at all like the houses on Westwood Road and Cranbury Avenue. If it was owned by the National Trust they’d charge you £2 to get in, or 75p for children under sixteen. Mum and I have already stepped in through the small black iron door, which the wind closed like an unseen butler, and currents are pulling us up the garden, around by the wall. “The Grayers must have a full-time gardener,” says Mum, “or even several of them.” At last, I feel my Valium kicking in. Reds are glossier, blues glassier, greens steamier and whites see-through like one layer of a two-ply tissue. I’m about to ask Mum how such a big house and its garden can possibly fit in the space between Slade Alley and Cranbury Avenue, but my question falls down a deep well with no bottom, and I forget what I’ve forgotten.
“Mrs. Bishop and son, I presume,” says an invisible boy. Mum jumps, a bit like me with the yappy dog, but now my Valium’s acting like a shock absorber. “Up here,” says the voice. Mum and me look up. Sitting on the wall, about fifteen feet up I’d say, is a boy who looks my age. He’s got wavy hair, pouty lips, milky skin, blue jeans, pumps but no socks and a white T-shirt. Not an inch of tweed, and no bow tie. Mum never said anything about other boys at Lady Grayer’s musical soirée. Other boys mean questions have to get settled. Who’s coolest? Who’s hardest? Who’s brainiest? Normal boys care about this stuff and kids like Gaz Ingram fight about it. Mum’s saying, “Yes, hello, I’m Mrs. Bishop and this is Nathan—look, that wall’s jolly high, you know. Don’t you think you ought to come down?”
“Good to meet you, Nathan,” says the boy.
“Why?” I ask the soles of the boy’s pumps.
Mum’s hissing something about manners and the boy says, “Just because. I’m Jonah, by the way. Your welcoming committee.”
I don’t know any Jonahs. It’s a maroon-colored name.
Mum asks, “And is Lady Norah your mother, Jonah?”
Jonah considers this. “Let’s say she is, yes.”
“Right,” says Mum, “that’s, um, I see. Do—”
“Oh, splendid, Rita, you’ve found us!” A woman walks out from a lattice-frame tunnel thing. The tunnel’s smothered with bunches of dangly white and purple flowers. The woman’s around Mum’s age, but she’s slim and less worn down and dresses like her garden looks. “After I hung up last night, I rather got the collywobbles that I’d horribly confused you by giving you directions to the Slade Alley door—really, I should’ve sent you round the front. But I did so want your first sight of Slade House to be across the garden in its full splendor.”
“Lady Grayer!” Mum sounds like an imitation of a posh person. “Good afternoon. No no no, your directions were—”
“Call me Norah, Rita, do—the whole ‘Lady’ thing’s a frightful bore when I’m off duty. You’ve met Jonah, I see: our resident Spider-Man.” Lady Grayer has Jonah’s black hair and X-ray vision eyes that I prefer to look away from. “This young man must be Nathan.” She shakes my hand. Her hand’s pudgy but its grip’s strong. “Your mother’s told me all about you.”
“Pleased to meet you, Norah,” I say, like a grown-up from a film.
“Nathan!” says Mum, too loud. “Lady Grayer didn’t mean you can call her by her Christian name.”
“It’s fine,” says Norah Grayer. “Really, he’s welcome to.”
The bright afternoon sways a bit. “Your dress matches the garden,” I say.
“What an elegant compliment,” says Lady Grayer. “Thank you. And you look very smart, too. Bow ties are terribly distinguished.”
I extract my hand. “Did you own a moon-gray cat, Norah?”
“ ‘Did’ I own a cat? Do you mean recently, or in my girlhood?”
“Today. It’s in the alley.” I point in the right direction. “At the first corner. It’s dead.”
“Nathan can be rather direct sometimes.” Mum’s voice is odd and hurried. “Norah, if the cat is yours, I’m terribly—”
“Don’t worry, Slade House has been catless for some years. I’ll telephone our odd-job man and ask him to give the poor creature a decent burial pronto. That’s most thoughtful of you, Nathan. Like your mother. Have you inherited her musical gift, too?”
“Nathan doesn’t practice enough,” says Mum.
“I practice an hour a day,” I say.
“Ought to be two,” says Mum, crisply.
“I’ve got homework to do too,” I point out.
“Well, ‘Genius is nine parts perspiration,’ ” says Jonah, standing right behind us, on the ground—Mum gasps with surprise, but I’m impressed. I ask, “How did you get down so quickly?”
He taps his temple. “Cranially implanted teleport circuitry.”
I know he jumped really, but I like his answer better. Jonah’s taller than me, but most kids are. Last week Gaz Ingram changed my official nickname from Gaylord Baconface to Poison Dwarf.
“An incurable show-off,” sighs Norah Grayer. “Now, Rita, I do hope you won’t mind, but Yehudi Menuhin’s dropped by and I told him about your Debussy recital. He’s positively bursting to meet you.”
Mum makes a face like an astonished kid from Peanuts: “The Yehudi Menuhin? He’s here? This afternoon?”
Lady Grayer nods like it’s no big deal. “Yes, he had a ‘gig’ at the Royal Festival Hall last night, and Slade House has become his London bolt-hole-cum-pied-à-terre, as it were. Say you don’t mind?”
“Mind?” says Mum. “Meeting Sir Yehudi? Of course I don’t mind, I just . . . can’t quite believe I’m awake.”
“Bravissima.” Lady Grayer takes Mum by the arm and steers her towards the big house. “Don’t be shy—Yehudi’s a teddy bear. Why don’t you chaps”—she turns to Jonah and me—“amuse yourselves in this glorious sunshine for a little while? Mrs. Polanski’s making coffee éclairs, so be sure to work up an appetite.”
“Eat a damson, Nathan,” says Jonah, handing me a fruit from the tree. He sits down at the base of one tree, so I sit down against its neighbor.
“Thanks.” Its warm slushy flesh tastes of early August mornings. “Is Yehudi Menuhin really visiting?”
Jonah gives me a look I don’t understand. “Why on earth would Norah lie?”
I’ve never met a boy who calls his mum by her Christian name. Dad’d call it “very modern.” “I didn’t say she is lying. It’s just that he’s an incredibly famous virtuoso violinist.”
Jonah spits his damson stone into tall pink daisies. “Even incredibly famous virtuoso violinists need friends. So how old are you, Nathan? Thirteen?”
“Bang on.” I spit my stone farther. “You?”
“Same,” he says. “My birthday’s in October.”
“February.” I’m older, if shorter. “What school do you go to?”
“School and I never saw eye to eye,” says Jonah. “So to speak.”
I don’t understand. “You’re a kid. You have to go. It’s the law.”
“The law and I never got on, either. ’Nother damson?”
“Thanks. But what about the truancy officer?”
Jonah’s face may mean he’s puzzled. Mrs. Marconi and me have been working on “puzzled.” “The what officer?”
I don’t get it. He must know. “Are you taking the piss?”
Jonah says, “I wouldn’t dream of taking your piss. What would I do with it?” That’s kind of witty, but if I ever used it on Gaz Ingram he’d crucify me on the rugby posts. “Seriously, I’m taught at home.”
“That must be ace. Who teaches you? Your mum?”
Jonah says, “Our master,” and looks at me.
His eyes hurt, so I look away. Master’s like a posh word for “teacher.” “What’s he like?”
Jonah says, not like he’s trying to boast, “A true genius.”
“I’m dead jealous,” I admit. “I hate my school. Hate it.”
“If you don’t fit into the system, the system makes life hell. Is your father a pianist too, like your mother?”
I like talking about Dad as much as I hate talking about school. “No. Dad lives in Salisbury but Salisbury in Rhodesia, not Wiltshire. Dad’s from there, from Rhodesia, and he works as a trainer for the Rhodesian Army. Lots of kids tell fibs about their dads, but I’m not. My dad’s an ace marksman. He can put a bullet between a man’s eyes at a hundred meters. He let me watch him once.”
“He let you watch him put a bullet between a man’s eyes?”
“It was a shop dummy at a rifle range near Aldershot. It had a rainbow wig and an Adolf Hitler mustache.”
Doves or pigeons coo in the damson trees. No one’s ever very sure if doves and pigeons are the same bird or not.
“Must be tough,” says Jonah, “your father being so far away.”
I shrug. Mum told me to keep shtum about the divorce.
“Have you ever visited Africa?” asks Jonah.
“No, but Dad promised I can visit next Christmas. I was meant to go last Christmas, but Dad suddenly had lots of soldiers to train. When it’s winter here, it’s summer there.” I’m about to tell Jonah about the safari Dad’s going to take me on, but Mrs. Marconi says talking’s like ping-pong: you take turns. “What job does your dad do?”
I’m expecting Jonah to tell me his father’s an admiral or a judge or something lordly, but no. “Father died. Shot. It was an accident on a pheasant shoot. It all happened a long, long time ago.”
Can’t be that long ago, I think, but I just say, “Right.”
The purple foxgloves sway like something’s there . . .
Reading Group Guide
A Reader’s Guide
A Conversation Between David Mitchell and David Ebershoff
David Ebershoff is the author of four books, including The Danish Girl and the numberone bestseller The 19th Wife. The Danish Girl was adapted into a film starring Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne and featuring an Oscarwinning performance by Alicia Vikander. David had a long career at Random House, where he edited five novels by David Mitchell, as well as more than twenty New York Times bestsellers, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and a winner of the National Book Award. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. Originally from Pasadena, California, he now lives in New York City.
On November 3, 2015, David Ebershoff interviewed David Mitchell onstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, after which audience members asked questions. The following edited dialogue is based on a transcript of the interview.
David Ebershoff: As your editor, every time you turn in a manuscript, I’m reading it on many levels. To see what it’s about, to see what you’re building on, but always in each of the books you’ve delivered, I’m discovering something you haven’t done before. And in this book it was the first time you really scared me.
David Mitchell: I’m delighted to hear that.
DE: The fate of your characters terrified me, as I saw what might happen to them and what was happening to them. How conscious of that were you when you were writing this? Was this the book where you set out to terrify your readers?
DM: Could a ghost story call itself a ghost story if it didn’t try to unsettle—-or, sure, terrify—-its readers? You’ve reminded me of a Tshirt I saw that other day that read, “Guns don’t kill people—-George R.R. Martin kills people.” The Tshirt made me think of how, when I kill characters off, the deaths tend to be moderately benign ones, with hope or redemption or poignancy being in the mix. But in George R.R. Martin’s books, nobody is safe. It’s high stakes, because some people will be too upset to read on, but for the survivors—-what a payoff! Whenever a character is in jeopardy you feel twenty thousand volts of fear because you really know Martin is quite capable of offing him or her right now. Not even Arya Stark is safe. Reading it, you’re as scared as the characters. Of dramatic irony there is not one whiff. Martin’s refusal to give preferred or privileged characters a “safety cloak” was a method I tried to emulate in Slade House. Nobody is safe here. Justice is not automatic. People do die in these pages.
DE: When we were getting ready to publish Slade House, I sent the book to Joe Hill, the horror/supernatural novelist, son of Stephen King, and he loved this book and he wrote back to both of us saying, I’ve always thought small doors are really creepy.
DM: Bless him.
DE: Why are they creepy and where in your life have you encountered a little door, and did you open it?
DM: Lots of such doors, as a matter of fact. I always try to open them, though they usually turn out to be locked. You get them in old higgledypiggledy English houses. Small doors have something wrong about them. Not glaringly wrong, but mildly wrong; and mildly wrong is more disturbing than glaringly wrong, because it’s not strong enough to make your fight or flight instinct kick in, and you don’t know whether you can trust your judgment about it or not. They stabilize and debase the currency of your belief in your own mind, and that is frightening. If something is going to come and get you, a vampire, a monster, it’s not very nice, but it’s kind of ripping the life out of you, it’ll be over pretty quickly . . . it’s not that bad. But the idea that you can no longer trust your mind, that’s just about the most frightening thing there is. When you mess around with proportion or symmetry, or when doubt is injected into your perception of the laws of physics, your mind ceases to be a refuge. Your mind is no longer a safe house.
I have a recurring nightmare where I’m being followed by someone. He’s not immediately threatening, but I want to keep him at a safe distance. We start off with him two hundred meters or so behind me, and I’m walking through a very empty Manchester. (I’m not sure why it’s Manchester: maybe because I support Liverpool, and Manchester United are the tribal enemy.) Then the figure that was a good safe distance behind me only a few seconds ago, when I next turn around is only five meters behind me—-practically in garroting distance. It’s not the fear of what he may do to me that makes me wake up in a sweaty panic, however; it’s the impossibility that he could he have covered that ground in so short a time. The only expla-nation is that my senses, memory, and mind are conspiring against my wellbeing, and nothing’s scarier than that.
The Slade House door is modeled on a small door in my sixthform college building. It was a ramshackle old house with Tudor timbers and a Georgian side—-real mutant, hybrid, default architecture, built on different levels, from a basement to an attic. To conform to modern fire safety regulations, the school had had to put in little fireexit doors everywhere, but for whatever structural reason, some of these doors were so small that you’d have to stoop to get through unless you were a hobbit. That small black iron door was in my history classroom.
DE: That explains it. What about originally publishing the first chapter on Twitter? That was your first time on Twitter. What intrigued you about seeing your work go out in those bursts and the kind of immediate response, which is so different from publishing a book, where you’re done writing many, many months before publication, where there’s a distance between you and your reader until evenings like this?
DM: The difference was that I was able to control the time the reader could read the story, and the speed at which they could consume the narrative. Ordinarily you have no control over these variables. The story was released in timed bursts of tweets to coincide with U.K. rush hours. It was more like a communal art project or a kind of textual radio than anything I’d ever done before, and it’s from the things you’ve never done before that you learn.
Writing a narrative in tweets is a unique writing straitjacket. Escaping from that straitjacket required me to think about narrative in a different way, break it down to its barest, unadorned elements, and work with each of those elements one tweet at a time.
With novels you can take your time. It’s more like being a balloonist, looking down on the lie of the land on the page below, seeing what’s happening here, what’s there, what’s where. With Twitter fiction the experience is more akin to being on a Japanese bullet train, traveling through a landscape of mountains and tunnels. You’re in the dark for a while and then, [bullet train sound], you get a moment of light and view and you have to see as much as possible in a brief window of time, a horse there and a mountain there, and a lake there with a couple making out in a boat, and then, [bullet train sound], you’re into the darkness again. What isn’t there is gone. With each tweet, you only have time to progress the plot, or develop a character, or convey an idea, or attend to “atmospherics.” Just one thing. In sentences in novels, you get to do all of those things in a single sentence. Twitter fiction is like the old spinningplateonstick trick. You’re constantly asking yourself, “Which element most urgently needs addressing next?” And you can’t have very long names like Benedict Cumberbatch.
DE: Let’s take some questions.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What inspired you to make Nathan thirteen? When I think of a curious and observant child, I would have imagined someone younger.
DM: In a word, vocabulary. You’re right that kids are curiosity machines when they’re eight or nine. Why, when, who, what, where, what? Their spoken vocabulary is really not great. By making Nathan thirteen years old, and a sort of borderline Asperger’s thirteen to boot, I could give him both that ferocious curiosity about the world that younger kids have, but also a kickass lexicon—-at least inside his head—-to express that curiosity (and its findings) in ways that engage the “mindear” of readers old than thirteen.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is there a theme you feel like you’re working out or something you’re especially interested in exploring that unites your different books?
DM: Every writer is a walking bundle of archetypal themes. If you have more than one, consider yourself lucky, though a single theme can be enough—-Nathaniel Hawthorne only ever wrote about guilt, but he wrote about it so brilliantly, who cares? Maybe the average number is about four? My themes include predacity, the eternal conflict between human beings who cooperate and human beings who are competitive and predatory. Another of my archetypal themes is language, especially when it goes wrong: speech impediments, miscommunication, autism, translation, nonmastery of a second language, being able to kind of express what you mean but not having the software to do it perfectly, and what it’s like to be sort of stuck in a prison house of language through whose barred windows you have to shout. Thirdly, cause and effect. Why do things happen the way they do? Were they preordained? If so, by whom, and how? Or free will? Can free will ever really be “free”? If not—-and it seems not—-then why not? In my first novel, each of the sections is sort of an essay in fiction that gives a different answer to this question.
Probably the object I would save if my house were on fire, obviously once the kids and wife were safe—I’ve got a photograph of a merchant navy ship called the Cairo that my dad sailed on when he was a little boy and was taken to India by my grandparents during what was known as the Phony War, when Germany and Britain were officially at war but hadn’t started bombing yet. The two sides were still sizing each other up while drawing up plans and manufacturing armaments like crazy. Anyway, my grandfather was a tailor and he got a job as a supervisor for a uniform factory somewhere in India. The Cairo came back, and on the way back out, well, the Phony War was no longer the Phony War. It got torpedoed, sank, everyone aboard died.
So had my grandparents, of course, taken the next passage on from the one they did in fact take, I would not be here. My dad would have died at age five, the timeline of me would never have happened, and the photo of the ship sits on my desk to remind me of the mercurial nature of cause and effect and the profound improbability that any of us are here at all.
I don’t suffer from clinical depression or suicidal thoughts, but if I did, I like to think this photograph would be my “Oh, come on, don’t do it, hang on in there.” The position of our existence is as close to impossible as you can get and yet still exist. As it is for us, so it is for all reality.
1. Slade House is broken up into five parts and is narrated by five different characters, all in the first person. Which of their voices were you most drawn to and why?
2. Despite their differences, the narrators are all “engifted” and therefore targets of the Grayer twins. What do you think “engifted” means? What might qualify someone as “engifted”?
3. Did you notice any recurring patterns in the storytelling across all five parts?
4. With each new “guest” you learn more and more about Slade House and the Grayer twins. What about their abilities and story was most unsettling to you?
5. On page 146, Freya Timms thinks “Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.” Do you agree? In what way is this true for characters in the novel?
6. On page 175, Fred Pink counters Freya’s argument for why immortality wouldn’t be kept a secret. What does Fred’s explanation say about human nature? Do you agree?
7. Throughout his life, many people dismiss Fred and his beliefs and research. What might his experiences say about the way society treats those who are labeled as mentally ill?
8. Norah and Jonah’s history is extraordinary, but also marked by loss. Did you ever find them sympathetic? When and why?
9. You don’t learn much about what Norah and Jonah do inbetween each nineyear cycle, but we do know that they have a great degree of freedom and many resources at their disposal. Would you be tempted by their nomadic but gifted existence?
10. Were you surprised by Norah’s actions at the end of the novel?
11. What’s the most frightening book you’ve ever read, and what is the most spinechilling movie you’ve seen? Are there differences between literary fear and cinematic fear?