David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader


David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader    A Review     ***Spoilers***

Slade House imageI have read three novels written by David Mitchell, including Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and Slade House. A while back, I posted a review of Cloud Atlas, expressing my frustration with the novel’s lack of cohesiveness. What really connected these different stories and characters of the Cloud Atlas? The implication was that these characters in six different stories were the same souls. Many of the souls we engage in one life, we engage in the next. Mitchell ties them together with chance discoveries and birthmarks.

Despite a hasty explanation in the last few pages, the Cloud Atlas was all sizzle and very little bacon.

The Bone Clocks, his 2014 novel, showcases Mitchell’s prose. It is dazzling shorthand, a clever first person narrative that lets you know right away who these characters are and what’s important to them, but nothing goes deeper and for me, they’re all rather flat. The Bone Clocks begins in the 1980’s and ends in the 2040’s with the last of humanity struggling to survive on a polluted Earth. A runaway teen, Holly Sykes, connects several stories. She’s a bystander in the war between the Horologists and Anchorites.

Horologists are immortal beings who share the minds and memories of human hosts.

Horologists often choose to enter the mind of a dying newborn and they become that child until it’s time for the next host. Any human who is capable of consent must agree to be a host.

Anchorites are humans who practice dark magic in order to continue to exist.

Though, like Horologists they can share space and thoughts within another human, they choose to end human lives to extend their own physical existence. As the novel continues, Holly transitions from bratty teen to mother, then to widow. The last segment shows Holly at the end of her life living on an island, struggling to protect her family from the brute forces that arise when our sick planet can no long sustain life as we know it.

So why am I reviewing Slade House instead of The Bone Clocks?

It’s because Slade House was written for readers like me, rather than for critics and academics. Yes, I know there are plenty of readers who adore Mitchell’s work. I enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. His clever prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution. What there is doesn’t build satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing. I related to Holly’s desperation and fear.

When the little girl turned up after a frantic search, I wondered what purpose did this segment serve.

What more did it tell me about Holly or her situation? Like my response to reading Cloud Atlas, I found it difficult to care; nothing in The Bone Clocks touched me. In order to refresh my memory (sorry, much of that brilliant prose was utterly forgettable) I read several reviews and a synopsis.

Another thing: Mitchell caters to the publishing world with characters like Cavendish (Cloud Atlas) and Hershey (Bone Clocks).

I found the insiders’ quips and snide observations about writers and writing annoying. In a review of The Bone Clocks (THE STAR online, 9/28/14) Priya Kulasgarian writes of the “caustic rendition of the literary scene” and how “high minded” readers would find this “self-indulgent . . . if you’re a little lowbrow like me . . . Crispin’s acidic cynicism is a delight to read.”

Then why did I hate these insider meta-jokes—this ripping away of the “fourth wall?

Maybe my brow is lower than Kulasgarian’s. After reading a number of sophisticated reviews of Mitchell’s work, I am confident in saying my brow is not higher.

I did learn of Mitchell’s plan to connect all of his novels into one humungous work of fiction.

The same characters from one title pop up, however briefly, in subsequent books. I haven’t read all of his books. I’m positive that readers who have read them all are big fans. What matters to me is a story well told, with characters that resonate–a story that I can remember longer than a day.

Nifty prose, innovative structure and grand design are entertaining but beside the point unless I care what happens and why.

In Slade House, Mitchell gives us a short novel (239 pages—The Bone Clocks is 624 pages) with a simple structure of five first person accounts of characters falling victim to a pair of supernatural predators, the Grayer twins. Born in 1899 England, the Grayer twins, Jonah and Norah, are telepathic and determined to live forever, a goal that becomes reachable when they learn the arts of the “Shaded Way.”

As in The Bone Clocks, the Shaded Way involves Horologists (see this post’s second paragraph) and Anchorites.

The twins are antisocial Anchorites. Since Horologists tend to dispose of any soul-sucking Anchorites they encounter, Jonah and Norah hide out in Slade House.  Built in the 1930’s for the purpose of luring and trapping victims, Slade House is a place tucked away in a secluded London alley. Though the house was destroyed when German bombs took it out in WWll, time stopped in the 1930’s when the twins created an “orison,” a place outside of time and space. They want their physical selves preserved. To do that requires lots of tricks and the right kind of nourishment.

The twins must eat a soul every nine years.

Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. When out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears and with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, the twins go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans. Through various maneuvers, the intended victim enters the “lacuna” (the space where Slade House used to be and the site of their power). A variety of illusions take place until the victim eats or drinks the “banjax,” something that loosens the soul from the body. Then dinner is served.

The twins are a nasty pair, making unkind jokes about their victims.

Each victim becomes the first person narrator of his or her demise.

In 1979 it’s awkward and peculiar eleven-year old Nathan, a Valium user and reluctant escort to his mother, a social climber.

Next is the 1989 victim Detective Edmonds, who looks for clues on what happened to Nathan. The seductive widow he encounters is really Norah, and when he climbs the stairs, portraits of prior victims line the walls. He recognizes Nathan and hears the boy whisper that he should look for things in the cracks, things that might be used to beat them. “Too late for you,” the boy tells him, “but pass it on to the next (victim).”

The passage where Edmonds describes seeing his soul has stayed with me:

“It’s almost see-through. Like gel, or egg white, and filled with shiny grains of dust, or galaxies, or… God it’s beautiful. Jesus, it shimmers. It’s alive, it’s mine . . .”

In 1998, the victim is Sally, a college student with a weight problem, a beautiful, supportive but distant sister (Freya) and a romantic nature.

Sally is a member of a paranormal investigations group. Sally is also “Engifted,” a fact that brings her and the group to Slade House. Soon, Jonah and Norah dispatch all of the group but Sally and then impersonate the others while playing cat and mouse games, a way to “season” Sally’s soul for good eating with “a sprinkle of last minute despair.”

As poor Sally tries to figure out what’s going on, she encounters the ghost of Detective Edmonds.

Edmonds gives Sally something he found in the “cracks.” It’s a six-inch needle. As Sally observes her soul being eaten, she warns the twins: “someone’ll stop you one day…”

I would hope so. Is that someone Freya, Sally’s older sister?

It’s 2006 and the loss of her sister Sally haunts Freya, now a New York journalist. She interviews Fred, a witness to the disappearance of Nathan and his mother. Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins and their unsavory magic. Alas, Fred isn’t really Fred and the barkeep isn’t a barkeep.

You guessed it. It’s the Jonah and Norah show.

Soon, Freya finds herself immobilized, her soul emerging as the twins prepare to chow down. Then the needle (found in the cracks) that was shown in Act Four appears again. Sally’s ghost makes good on that promise of “someone” to make the pair pay.

Score one for humanity when Sal plunges it into Jonah’s neck. How’s that for “seasoning,” bitches!

Freya still dies, but her soul remains hers. Not only is Jonah incapacitated, but also dinner plans are cancelled.

The next one is nine years away. What to do?

The answer is nothing until 2015. Dinner-to-be is Iris Marinus-Fenby, an academic specializing in paranormal phenomena. Mitchell fans know that Marinus is a character appearing in numerous Mitchell novels. In The Bone Clocks, Marinus is a Horologist.

Jonah is weak and fading fast; Norah is desperate for a hearty meal to power up the orison, save her brother and herself from certain death.

This time we know something they don’t. Iris seems an easy, juicy target, but things keep going wrong. Norah improvises and all is going well until Iris reveals her true nature. Jonah becomes a pile of ash. Just as Norah begins to die, she spots a pregnant woman and takes up residence within the fetus. Norah vows revenge and we have the setup for another Mitchell soul sucking tale.

I wish Mitchell would give his human characters in The Bone Clocks and Slade House more power.

The conflict was much easier to follow in Slade House because when we listen in on the twins, they spell out who they are and what they want; however, the humans remain clueless. In Dracula, Van Helsing explains the nature of Dracula’s evil. Jonathan knows what he’s up against and chooses to fight.

In the war between the Horologists and Anchorites, we’re collateral damage, seen as pets or a natural resource.

Horologists are the SPCA and the Anchorites are Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mitchell is very good at rendering character types, but for me, with the possible exception of Holly Sykes, there is no soul to eat. Regardless, Slade House was a very good read, easy to follow and understand, though it abruptly ended when it should have been just starting.

Okay, Mr. Mitchell, I’d like some more, please.



Spectre: The spy who came in from the old


Spectre: The spy who came in from the old        A review          ***spoilers***

spectre I’ve never been much of a James Bond fan, though as far as I can tell, I’ve seen every Bond movie soon after its release, including Spectre. As I mentioned in my review of Skyfall, the early Sean Connery movies were thrilling. Every exotic locale, the delicate dance of the gambling dens, where everyone was evil, but oh so glamorous, transported our sixties humdrum selves into a world of vivid, cinematic sin and women with big hair and funny names. The sex scenes faded at just the right moment. No morning mouth, snarled hair-do or wince of regret spoiled it.

Spectre, the newest Bond film, is an entertaining film with an impressive opening sequence.

We’re in Mexico and from a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) parade, a man appears among the celebrants. He wears a skull mask and holds hands with a beautiful senorita. As we follow him and he removes the death mask, we see that he is our blue-eyed spy. 007. The death mask is fitting since in this film, Bond is labeled a professional assassin. He leads the woman to a prearranged room. They begin making love. Inexplicably, he seems to change his mind. Exiting through a window, he tells her he’ll be right back. But, he never returns. Instead, he chases and kills a bad guy. During a lengthy chase, including some truly impressive helicopter stunts, he almost takes out half of the parade people.

Later at London headquarters, and back from “vacation,” Bond is in trouble.

The new “M” (Ralph Fiennes is one of the best things in the movie) suspends him for the unauthorized “hit.” The “license to kill” program is being phased out in favor of a new international surveillance conglomerate headed by “C” (Andrew Scott—Moriarty to Cumberbatch’s Holmes). “C” is a smarmy passive aggressive bureaucrat, a drab harbinger of all things “spy” in the changing world. “C” is the new reality and “M’ is the past, a theme carried over from Skyfall. Not every millennial is on board with the change. “Q” (Ben Whishaw) still believes in the program and happily creates all the fun cars and gadgets, giving Bond access, even after Bond has been suspended. Why did 007 defy his orders this time?

We discover the answer when a concerned Moneypenny visits James Bond’s pitiful apartment.

Moneypenny wants to know  the real reason Bond was in Mexico. Like Moneypenny, we’re not impressed by Bond’s totally un-groovy pad. There’s no movie décor. Nothing “goes” with the couch. And worse, the flat screen TV sits on the floor. When it comes to interior design, 007, the embodiment of all things glamorous, has no taste. Why does this matter? It matters because it deflates our belief in 007’s mystique. Spectre‘s portrayal of Bond’s personal life doesn’t match the fantasy of the older Bond films. Times have changed and perhaps, the disarray is the point, hinting at the conflict created by his service to Queen and country that is within James.   The smooth outer ‘60’s Bond was a man whose freedom, the “license to kill” included plenty of  sin, but little guilt.

When I thought about it, which was almost never, I assumed that the place this enigmatic spy called home was likely a den of solitude like Superman’s fortress.

And no women allowed (except the cleaning lady; 007 wouldn’t vacuum or make beds). Discovering the ordinariness of the Bond residence is like finding out there is no Santa. Once the bubble’s burst, there’s a new perspective (Spectre?) of Bond. This new view extends to his treatment of women, which changes as the story continues. Early in the film, he deserts the senorita with no apology.  Then, after protecting a grieving widow by killing her assassins, he comforts her by ripping off her clothes (she helps). When he goes home, unrepentant, M (Fienne) suspends him. Something in James changes. There’s weariness in 007’s eyes. In fact rather than shrugging off commitment, he becomes territorial, pouting when he discovers Moneypenny had an overnight visitor that’s not him. “That’s life,” Moneypenny chides. So it is.

James explains his actions by clicking on the TV. A posthumous message from M, assigns him a mission.

The woman who haunts James is not Pussy Galore, but “M” (Judy Dench). In Skyfall, M emerged as a mother figure for both James and his foe, an embittered agent. Her willingness to sacrifice them for the good of the Crown cut deep.

As in Skyfall, more than world domination, Bond’s past drives the plot in Spectre.

These issues continue in the form of Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz, an interesting actor, though the smirk is wearing thin. The scene introducing Blofeld as a man to be feared is masterfully done, using protocol and whispers and ending in a gruesome murder. Blofeld’s connection to Bond is what drives Blofeld’s thirst for revenge. He has a childhood score to settle, and he’s determined to murder all the important women in Bond’s life, including M. Like all Bond villains, Blofeld is a psychopath.

“M’s(Dench) posthumous assignment leads to Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, an appealing French actress).

A psychiatrist specializing in talk therapy, Swann is the daughter of a dying bad guy, who begged Bond to save her from her father’s enemies. Bond agrees, but Ms Swann isn’t grateful. She can take care herself, thank you very much. Of course, she’s promptly kidnapped. He rescues her, but she’s still not with the program, though she does lead him to the next clue. It seems that Blofeld and “C” are in cahoots. Surprised?

There’re more betrayals, helicopter stunts and rescues before the movie’s end. There’s also something different.

Bond decides to give it all up for Madeleine, a woman who cannot tolerate the world of her father. 007 has done this in other films and the future Mrs. Bond always ended up dead, leaving James newly available. This time, she survives and they walk away together. Bond seems sick of it all. But can this leopard change his spots, never to engage the deadly sleek glamour of the games, the adrenaline of the jungles, the seething volcanoes of life and death? Will he give up the miracle cars, suitcases with secret compartments, and exploding watches? Will he miss the sultry, double-dealing women, the rescuing of grieving widows? It seems this Bond can leave it all.

 Craig said Spectre was to be his last Bond film, a character he described as misogynistic.

Recently, I read that he has agreed to do another. The world has changed since the days of Mad Men, when Ian Fleming’s smooth spy was unstoppable. Thanks for the memories, but spies now operate in a more complex, more inclusive world. A more human Bond might be a better fit.

Maybe the next Bond should be more like Richard Burton’s character in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Maybe it’s time Bond did too.

From The Demon Rift: The Tea Kettle and the Potato Peel


From The Demon Rift:

Cuyahoga County Orphanage

August, 1903 Cleveland, Ohio

“Mrs. Kray, I believe you’re spoiling this child; I warn you, he’ll not be ready for the world when he leaves.

Mrs. Murphy was beginning to wear out her welcome. Plump, motherly, and younger looking than her sixty years, the cook was causing problems, some more serious than others. Her rules, including no talking when in the kitchen and scrubbing spotless pots, were bewildering to the unfortunate orphans assigned kitchen duty. Miriam, the previous cook had given notice after fifteen years. “I’ve taken a position in Columbus,” she said, avoiding Mrs. Kray’s stricken face. Mrs. Kray didn’t ask why Miriam was leaving. She already knew.

The week before they found Mr. Buchner hanging in the shed, she had seen “Bernie” standing at the open door of the classroom.

The teacher’s attention was on verbs. Of the fifty-three students, some sitting at the thirty or so desks, many on the floor, the little ones sitting on the lap of an older student, none seemed aware of him. “What’re you doing? Go sit with the others.”

She looked in horror to see seventy-year-old Mr. Buchner and the boy’s face, tilted up, to meet his disapproving gaze. The old man paled; his sunken mouth opened, but no sound emerged. The child never moved—an owl eyeing a mouse. Leave—run! Inside the classroom, the children were reciting the tenses of verbs. Mr. Buchner shook his head several times as words failed to form on his moving lips. He turned, his elbows swaying wildly, his wooden leg, the result of a bullet from rebel fire in ’61, clomping down the hall.

Suicide? How did such a small boy engineer the murder of a grown man?

Suicide, but they never explained the pulley. How did the old man hoist himself up? His throat torn open, cut by his own bloodied hand, the dead fingers locked around the knife.

Poor Darcy found him. The girl still wasn’t right, insisting on sleeping on the floor at the foot of Mrs. Kray’s narrow bed, a liberty she had never allowed before Mr. Buchner’s death. “He was looking up and his mouth . . . open . . . and . . . his tongue . . . ” The girl kept sobbing.

“Darcy put it out of your mind. Think of something else. Pray.” Darcy promised to try, but Mrs. Kray knew that Mr. Buchner’s dead eyes, looking up to heaven, the blood dripping from his stiff shirt weren’t easily forgotten by anyone. The death of Mr. Buchner resulted in a series of handy men, each only staying a week or so until she found Leon. Hard of hearing and simple-minded, Leon a large and amiable man in his early sixties, stayed. The fact that he was less than efficient and that left many chores undone until Mrs. Kray or one of the older boys took care of them was less important than the fact that Bernie had no effect on him. Mrs. Kray thanked God for sending her Leon.

Dread now lived at the orphanage.

Mrs. Murphy, newly arrived from Boston, had a crisp manner. The kitchen ran with military precision, the pots were shining on new hooks, and every scrap of food used in a stew, soup or a pie. Mrs. Kray realized that the cook’s complaints were more than an annoyance; they were deadly.

The trays prepared and left for the strange boy, who spent most of his time secluded in the small storeroom were an outrage to Mrs. Murphy.

She had been pressing Mrs. Kray for an explanation for weeks. “He has special needs,” Mrs. Kray said again.

Mrs. Murphy narrowed her eyes in disbelief. She patted and smoothed her copper hair swept up in a knotted bun that sat like a small pot handle on top of her head. “It won’t do for too much longer,” she snapped, “I must be honest . . .” The cook lingered for a moment standing over Mrs. Kray who focused on a stack of papers sitting on her cluttered desk.

“Thank you Mrs. Murphy, I’ll let you know when there is a change.” With a look of tight-lipped disgust, Mrs. Murphy did an abrupt turn and left.

Mrs. Kray sighed and finished the last of August’s accounts. It had been a successful summer. Darcy was adopted by a family with two small boys, and a set of five-year old twins orphaned by a fire, were taken by a childless couple in Cleveland.

As the afternoon light faded, Mrs. Kray decided to place an ad for another cook and give Mrs. Murphy her notice.

Searching her desk for paper, she saw the rabbit’s foot. It had been in Herman’s hand when he pounded on Bernie’s door. She had hoped she’d been in time, pulling him by the ear, scolding him for “picking on sickly Bernie.” His eyes wide with false innocence, Herman cocked his head and grinned at her, “Lord save me Mrs., I won’t bother the poor soul again.” She knew he was lying; he was in danger, but she could do nothing. Soon after, Herman disappeared. He’d been gone for more than a day. He ran away, she told herself. Two boys found Herman floating in the pond. Mrs. Kray blamed herself for Herman’s death. She should have protected him, saved him, from what? Oh, she wished she knew! Maybe if she knew what he was, she could fight.

It was too dangerous to continue. A monster was in her care, left by the dead man, Baker.

Crispin, the suspect in the murderer of a wealthy London widow, kidnapped Bernie, the missing orphan, seen with him on a ship to New York. She’d written the orphanage in London and was shocked to discover that the person she had thought was a ten-year old child, small for his age, was in fact, seventeen, much too old to be at the orphanage. Many would consider him a man, yet he was scarcely the size of Darcy when she left. She wrote more letters. There were so many questions.

The London home returned them unopened. She’d have to find a way . . . perhaps if she wrote again, they might know of a relative . . .

As she began to compose the ad, she heard screaming. “Mithus Kray! Mithus Kray, help!”

A small girl staggered as she came through the open office door. Mrs. Kray jumped from her chair and followed six-year old Maryanne who barely paused at the door before turning back.

“What’s wrong, Mary,” she asked as they hurried.

“Mmmmisss—cook! The cook lady—she—oooh—hooo.” Maryanne ran toward the kitchen, her sobs echoing as Mrs. Kray followed.

At the kitchen’s open double doors, a hot mist greeted her.

Heavy pans lay upturned or face down on the floor. On a large table near the pantry door, she saw shattered jars of preserves, their contents spilled on several ears of new corn. Next to the table, six children huddled in its shadow, their bodies rigid with terror, eyes fixed on the huge iron stove where Mrs. Murphy was inspecting the stew for . . .

An odor, it was the broth, beefy, thick and bubbling with vegetables . . . What is she doing?

Why are her hands waving? She must be waving the children away because something had fallen into the deep pot, steam rising and the hiss of boiling water splashing out onto the stove, a mouse, perhaps. No, it must be bigger to displace so much water and cause such fear in the children.

The four girls and two boys, all between eight and ten, were transfixed,

watching the pot as it shuddered on the large burner. Clouds of steam rose and curled under the glare of the new overhead light. A rat must have . . . or—OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD!

Mrs. Murphy wasn’t inspecting the stewpot.

Her body folded from her ample waist, the starched white apron, no longer white, but stained with jam and grease . . .

Mrs. Murphy had wedged her face firmly in the stewpot. The handle of red hair moved up and down as if someone were grasping it to inspect the contents of the stewpot, then closing the lid made of Mrs. Murphy’s face.

Her extended arms began to make circles as if to beckon them. “Huhhuhahhhaaaaa!” Maryanne began to wail, breaking the spell. The other children started screaming, Mrs. Kray joining them. The pot spewed broth, vegetables, and pinkish lumps of tissue.

Glops of stew flinging onto the stove’s surface and the suction creating a loud pop, the cook pulled free of the stewpot and she stood up straight, the pot teetering for an instant, before continuing to bubble. Burgundy liquid splatted her apron as she turned. Her knob of copper hair collapsed, following her ear as it slid down the side of her neck. The eyes had melted—the sockets a shiny red.

“Miz Kray?”

She turned to see Leon and two older boys. The boys were holding baskets filled with apples. “Yes, Leon . . . ” she marveled at the calm in her voice.

“Me and the boys got them apples Miz Murphy wanted” . . .

Staring at the cook, whose ear now rested on her shoulder, he began to swallow and grunt, patting the wisps of grey on his bald head and feeling his own ears as if to make sure they stayed in place.

He let out a high-pitched sigh. “You ladies got yer hands full, so I best let you git to it.” He motioned to the boys who nodded, their mouths hanging open, the baskets poised for delivery. “Go git washed up fer supper.” He backed out of the doorway, and the boys dropped their baskets. As they left, Mrs Kray considered what to do.

Mrs. Murphy was trying to say something.

Her lips were wide ridges supporting the drooping folds of what had been her nose. As she opened her mouth, the tissue formed an oblong opening the size of a jellybean.

Steam began to leak out, a long whistle coming from it. A teakettle, thought Mrs. Kray. Still whistling, Mrs. Murphy collapsed onto the floor.

Maryanne was screaming. Mrs. Kray scooped the little girl into her arms as the other children began to scream. She comforted Maryanne, began to collect her senses and saw Bernie standing in the kitchen doorway. He’s finally grown a little she thought. It’s about time, he . . . he was eating something. It was a potato peel, the lunch, she discovered later, that Mrs. Murphy ordered served on his tray.