Cloud Atlas’ Author Finally Writes a Beginner-Friendly Novel
To call British novelist David Mitchell’s work ambitious is to undersell its scope dramatically. His books are sprawling, labyrinthine tomes that encompass centuries of time, far-flung settings, and multiple narrators grappling with historical meaning and existential themes. His best-known book, Cloud Atlas, follows an accordion structure of six nested stories, from nineteenth-century New Zealand to post-apocalyptic Hawaii; it’s a structure so unconventional that only the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker believed a film adaptation to be possible.
But Mitchell isn’t simply interested in creating vast worlds one book at a time. Instead, he’s fashioned a universe: All of his novels are interconnected, with characters popping up again in books set years later or being revealed as fictional characters within the world of another story. The web is so tangled that when he published The Bone Clocks last year, Vulture made a chart to keep track of them all. The intimidating amount of thought it takes to keep track of it all makes Mitchell a revered figure among his fans, but it can also scare off casual readers who aren’t sure whether—or how—to invest in such a densely woven network of stories.
And that tension is exactly why his latest book, Slade House, is such a revelation. Instead of a daunting brick that taunts anyone unfamiliar with his work, the comparatively diminutive novel—out this week—clocks in at a comparatively diminutive 256 pages. For Mitchell’s established fanbase, it’s a glimpse at previously excised backstory for recurring characters. But to newcomers, it’s a bite-sized collection of haunted-house stories that function as a beginner’s guide to Mitchell’s sprawling world.
Social Media Beginnings
The elements of Slade House began as part of The Bone Clocks. In the process of writing that book, Mitchell says, the story ultimately moved away from two characters, a pair of supernaturally gifted fraternal twins named Jonah and Norah Greyer who take up residence in a mysterious English manor home for the better part of a century. The pair’s arc, which comprised five stories, stuck in his mind; after The Bone Clocks had been published, he went back and rewrote one of the stories, “The Right Sort”—on Twitter.
Over the course of the 280 tweets, Mitchell quickly realized that this wouldn’t be the last stand for “The Right Sort.” “I wrote it thinking it was the strongest part,” he says, “but even as I finished it, I was thinking, ‘this is raising at least as many questions as it’s answering.’”
He then “reoxygenated” the tweets, and fleshed out the other four chapters that make up the novel. Mitchell typically takes years between projects, but he wanted to get this one out as quickly as possible. “It was always in the back of my mind to come back and do it” he says. “There was a sort of now or never sense, however. My next four or five books won’t really have the space for Slade House-type material in them.”
Mitchell certainly isn’t the first author to experiment with Twitter fiction, but he’s one of the most prominent British authors to attempt it. And that emphasis on concision gives each of the novel’s five chapters an immediacy that his other, more expansive works sometimes lack. “The Right Sort” is set in 1979, as a young boy and his mother encounter the Grayers in their house; each subsequent chapter picks up the story nine years after the last, with a new narrator in each: a police officer, a university student, that student’s older sister, and finally one of the mysterious twins.
October is the perfect time for Slade House, since it marries Mitchell’s penchant for time-hopping tales with a creepy setting whose origins become clearer with each successive visitor. Each chapter follows roughly the same structure as well, with Mitchell subtly altering the sequence of events for heightened horror. (In that way, it’s in line with Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty-Year Sword, another change-of-pace ghost story from a fiercely ambitious author known for publishing gargantuan novels.)
An Onramp to a Literary Universe
For Mitchell completists, part of the appeal of Slade House will be making connections to his other novels when familiar words or characters show up. One of the narrators is a magazine writer for Spyglass, which exists in Cloud Atlas. Most notably, a doctor from Mitchell’s 2010 novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet plays a significant role in the the novel’s key final chapter.
Nor is the end of Slade House the end of the Grayers; Mitchell says that twin Norah will play a significant role as an antagonist in a future novel, and that the novella functions somewhat as a villain’s origin story. To anyone for whom the battle between Horologists and Anchorites sounds like a made-up language, perhaps it’s best not to start with one of Mitchell’s more oppressively dense books. But Slade House isn’t as forbidding. With its nods to familiar genre tropes—the haunted house, gothic horror, vampires—it’s by far Mitchell’s most accessible book. And if that style piques the interests of anyone previously uninterested in Mitchell’s other work, it’s the perfect opportunity to dive in and explore the vast shared universe he’s mapped out in other books over the last 16 years.
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