Slade House by David Mitchell

CBpZPA4XIAEohhRThere’s a small iron door in a narrow alley. Beyond it lies a sumptuous garden that surrounds the titular house – Slade House. Through the years, several people enter the house and none check out.

Slade House is a sequel-in-spirit to David Mitchell‘s previous novel The Bone Clocks; set in the same universe, it tells a smaller story, with smaller villains and in a considerably shorter length, but with a similar fragmented structure. Yet it can also be read on its own, as a haunted house story of sorts.

The chapters, set at 9-year intervals, recount the fates of the house’s victims; first a mother and her child, then a detective, followed by several others over the years. Some of the segments are genuinely creepy, such as the increasingly frantic text messages in the second-to-last chapter, slowly revealing that the character has already become trapped in the house. There’s a slight risk the structure of the book might become repetitive, but Mitchell’s solid writing keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a slow build-up to the finale, featuring one of the familiar faces from The Bone Clocks, swooping in like a proper paranormal investigator.

At about 150 pages Slade House is more like a novella than a novel, but it’s stacked with ideas. A small book it might be, but it’s significantly bigger on the inside.

***** (5/5) 

Published in October 2015. Available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site!

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

thefirstfifteenHarry August lives and dies and is then born again, always restarting his 20th century lifespan with all his memories intact. Not alone with his predicament, the ouroborans (as they’re known) have created societies (the Cronus Clubs) to help their kind through the first difficult years of their new lives. At the end of one of Harry’s lives, he receives a message from the future (handed down from a child to an old person and so on, in a strange chain of death and rebirth) that the world is going to end.

The culprit, it seems, is a fellow 20th century ouroboran hellbent on changing history beyond its usual course – something that tends to throw things out of whack. For its latter half, the novel switches gears from a scifi/fantasy mix to a sort of spy fiction, a welcome change that keeps the story fresh throughout.

There’s a lot of background to cover in the novel (how does it all work and so on) but all the exposition never feels too cumbersome; the timey-wimey logic of it all can induce headaches, but it’s best not to think too much. The idea has legs and the story runs with them through the 20th century, in a most fantastic fashion, several times over.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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UK paperback cover

It’s Captain Trips all over again; with a sneeze and a fever the world comes to a crashing halt, and only a handful of survivors are left to pick up the pieces. In this desolate landscape a ragtag band of survivors (actors, musicians) travels from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare, because mere “survival is insufficient”.

And that’s the idea that lifts the novel above the common postapocalyptic drudgery; sure, there’s a tight spot or two with all the familiar craziness the end of the world brings, and that keeps things exciting. But beneath the usual trappings the message is positive and hopeful. Not only will humanity survive, but so will some of its cultural achievements, from Shakespeare to a lowliest self-published comic book. Little by little things keep getting better: a newspaper appears, and a town is seen on the horizon, lit up by electric lights.

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US cover

The postapocalyptic narrative is interrupted by scenes from before the fall, featuring a famous actor who dies suddenly on the eve of the calamity. Not all parts fit as elegantly into the whole as well as they should, but the realistic, feet on the ground optimism of the novel is, no pun intended, rather infectious.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014, available in multiple formats. Visit the author’s site

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Buick8From a Buick 8 (2002) is a Lovecraftian dark fantasy as interpreted by Stephen King; the big, cosmic ideas are there, but it’s all wrapped up in neat, homely Americana.

It’s also a novel about storytelling. The policemen of Troop D, not at all dissimilar to the prison guards of E Block in The Green Mile, gather around the son of one of their own in present day to share the story of a decades-old secret kept in storage shed B.

Troop D’s very own miracle-making John Coffey is a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, a car that even in real life has that repellent “Innsmouth look”. Indeed, there is something fishy about the vehicle. Left at a gas station in the seventies, Troop D soon discovers that the car is merely a prop. A prop that hums and puts on spectacular lightshows they dub “lightquakes”.

But there’s more; occasionally the Buick “gives birth” to strange, unearthly creatures, appearing from the trunk and probably originating in another dimension. And people as well as gerbils that go too near the car go missing, presumably travelling in the opposite direction. It’s a far-fetched proposition, a Buick as a portal to other worlds, but it’s also quintessentially King. The policemen, like some guardians of an arcane secret, keep the Buick locked up and under observation for decades.

From a Buick 8 is not an action-packed story; for the most part the Buick just sits there in its shed, with the cops peering in through the shed windows. It’s the mystery that drives the story, the weird, inexplicable nature of things “from beyond” that the smalltown cops could never even begin to comprehend.

But they give it a brave try, and their camaraderie bestows the story with warmth in a way that only Stephen King can create. The policemen live, they retire, they die – as all men must. And the structure of the novel allows them to tell their tale with their own voice. It’s this kind of narrative choices that drive home the point that King is a seriously prodigious writer in full control of his craft.

***** (5/5)

The Orchard by Charles L. Grant

orchThe first story I read by Charles L. Grant was “The Gentle Passing of a Hand” from Tales from the Nightside (1981), an exquisite story of a child who accidentally learns a magic trick that can both kill and resurrect. Admittedly a fable of the “be careful what you wish for” variety, it was Grant’s style that made the biggest impression, communicating by hints and suggestion a story that felt both exhilaratingly fantastic and deeply tragic.

The same sublime style is used in The Orchard (1986), a collection of four novellas set in Grant’s fictional town of Oxrun Station. The orchard of the title is an abandoned tract of land just outside the town, a place for teenage gatherings and surreptitious meetings. There’s bad juju about the place, and it’s suggested that it somehow causes the events that follow.

The first story, “My Mary’s Asleep” tells the story of Herb and his crush on a girl called Mary, who’s already in a relationship with one of Herb’s friends. The crush is slightly disturbing, as Herb has chosen to carve a tomb effigy in the likeness of Mary for a school project. One night, as all the friends hang out at the orchard, Mary’s boyfriend is run over by a car. And then Herb’s other friends start dying as well, in different ways. It’s a haunting story that builds beautifully to a strange, unexplained ending that can only disappoint.

The second story, “I See Her Sweet and Fair”, is a story of a single-parent cop whose son is suspected of being a serial killer. Vacillating between two women, the policeman is finally forced to choose in a finale that apparently features a unicorn. No, it makes no sense.

The third story, “The Last and Dreadful Hour”, ups the ante again. A group of spectators take shelter in a movie theater during a storm and a blackout. The doors are locked, but one by one people start disappearing, until only the main character is left. Again the set-up is brilliant, and again the story just trickles away at the end.

The fourth story, “Screaming, in the Dark” features an investigative journalist convalescing at a hospital after breaking his leg. A scared young kid is brought to the same room, and being an investigative type, the reporter starts to investigate the source of the scare. Blacker than black shadows are glimpsed, nurses change shape, and a girl who committed suicide comes for a visit. There’s an almost cosmic crescendo to the events, but again… it all seems to amount to very little indeed. The collection is then topped off with an epilogue that references the cast of the novellas, a sort of where are they now section that attempts to give the characters some existence beyond their own stories.

Grant’s writing is excellent throughout. There’s a poetic quality to his prose, as exemplified by this passage from “Screaming, in the Dark”:

Evening comes rapidly when the year begins to die - when the leaves have all turned and the grass bows against the wind and there's no memory of spring despite the gold left behind by the sun in its setting. 

Evening comes, not with shadows but a slow killing of the light... and when the light has gone, the trees grow larger and streets become tunnels and porches on old houses no longer hold the swings and the rockers and the warm summer calls to come away, come and sit, and watch for a while.

And when the sidewalks are empty and the cars have all been parked and the only sign of movement is a leaf scratching at the curb, there are the sounds, the nightsounds, the last sounds before the end – of wings dark over rooftops, of footsteps soft around the corner, of something clearing its throat behind the hedge near the streetlamp where white becomes a cage and the shadows seldom move.

There are stars.
There is a moon.

There are late August wishes and early June dreams that slip out of time and float into the cold that turns dew to frost and hardens the pavement, gives echoes blade edges and makes children's laughter seem too close to screams.

In the evening; never morning.
When the year begins to die.

The repetition of certain phrases, the changes in rhythm, the imagery. That’s some serious writing right there. Grant is brilliant at evoking an ominous atmosphere in ordinary places and situations. But what does all that atmosphere amount to? Not much. The mood is set, the plot is put in gear, situations unfold – and then? Grant doesn’t elaborate, he merely hints. The trouble is that the reader is left grasping at straws, trying to draw conclusions out of half-glimpsed shadows.

Now I dont’t need a great payoff, there doesn’t need to be a monster or anything like that at the end of the book. But I do wish for something that would help with an interpretation. “The Gentle Passing of a Hand”, I think, worked because it was, at its heart, a very basic story, something that the reader could deduce from the hints and suggestions. The stories of The Orchard are more complicated, there are no reference points, not much familiarity with the scenarios. In addition, the overarching theme of the orchard forces the reader to think that there should be something tangible to figure out in all this. And there isn’t, not easily anyway. It’s mostly just mood and mood alone.

Reading Grant can be frustrating. I simply adore his writing, in small doses anyway. No problem with the settings or the situations either. Plotting also works, up to a point. But after finishing a story I’m at a loss about what I just read. Nothing is explained, nothing revealed. Everything remains as opaque as in the beginning. And all I’ve witnessed is some really, really impressive shadowplay.

*** (3/5)