This excerpt includes violence and sex. Just a little, but in case it’s not your cup of tea, I wanted to let you know.
November 1894 New London, Connecticut
“Well, luv, what do you think? Shall we tell him tomorrow?” Crispin enjoyed the rest of the rabbit stew. Sucking the delicate bones of the dead rabbit, he watched the woman as she finished cleaning the bar top. It was late, past midnight on a Monday. The “Dancing Stag” was empty, save for the barmaid, her new suitor, and the suitor’s small son, who was sleeping peacefully under a corner table, a knitted blanket keeping him warm. Several carvings of Crispin’s, including an impressive stag’s head, hung above a shelf behind the bar. The sales had afforded him and Bernie a room in a nearby boarding house. He regretted the fact that they would soon be leaving. He had enjoyed the bed and the occasional baths.
Bernie said it must be tomorrow. Crispin glanced at the corner where he slept. Was he really sleeping? Doubtful. Willie said the boy made her uncomfortable. Crispin had reassured her. “He needs the love of a mother; it’s been hard on the boy.” She folded her apron, creasing the folds. Her brown eyes had the look of a dying fawn. He reached up and stroked her hair. Good to feel a woman again, he thought. He’d been too long without. Not a girl, though. She was older than the thirty-two she professed. More like forty-two, and a bit too large for his taste, but still . . . overripe for the plucking.
“Let’s go in the back,” he whispered, “just for a while . . . ” She took a quick look in the corner. The boy seemed asleep. Crispin saw her shudder.
“Such a little boy, I don’t know why I . . . ”
“What, luv?” he asked, knowing exactly what.
She shrugged. “Okay Crispie—but just for a few minutes.”
“That’s my girl.” He nuzzled her neck, then reached around and cupped her breast.
“A few minutes is all, then we must stop.”
“Of course, dear girl, after the wedding, there will be time . . . ”
Much later, when he thought about it, he was glad she came. It startled him. He was just finishing himself, when she let out a stream of moaning, like a cow wanting milking he laughed to himself. They had but a few minutes in the crowded closet. “He might wake.” She was nervous.
“Don’t worry dear heart, he’ll be fine.” In a rare spirit of generosity, he admitted it was rare, he saw it was fitting that she had a small bit of pleasure, considering what happened and all.
He puzzled over what happened that night for weeks, trying to make sense of it. Did they open a door? Is that what happened? “They’ll know it was us,” he worried. He had no objections to anything; however, he didn’t like the thought of hanging.
“Do what I tell you and you’ll be rewarded.” The child’s eyes threatened.
Crispin nodded enthusiastically. Hanging was preferable to what Bernie might inflict. “Of course, lad, whatever you say, I’m completely on board.”
Tuesday night, her house smelled of onions and bread. Crispin sat comfortably on the settee, its rose velvet freshly brushed and looking crimson in the shadow of an ornate lamp. A few eventful moments in their brief courtship told him that there was nothing of value in the tidy white house. Still, he approved of her excellent housekeeping. Aunt Meg could have learned a thing or two. Later, he was surprised to see Bernie eat everything, including the tapioca pudding. Unusual. He knew the boy was selective, despite their periods of hunger.
Candles, how many were there? He hid them in the pull wagon near the house. Bernie had been collecting candles, taking them. Crispin distracted their owners with his wooden carvings. Won’t they see you? Bernie assured him they would not. He wondered what purpose they served. That night he saw what happened when the candles burned.
He struck her with a wooden club he had carved the day before. Crispin made a show of announcing their “engagement” to his “son.” Willie sat at his right, her eyes downcast, unable to look at the boy. “Not too hard,” Bernie warned, she must wake before we finish. Bernie spilled a glass of milk. As she reached to retrieve it, Crispin struck an expert blow. She was unconscious for an hour. When she woke, the satisfaction in Bernie’s yellow eyes made Crispin feel proud.
The star drawn in blood, whose blood was it? They were all naked. Pools of blood, like puddles after a cloudburst, glistened in the candlelight. Bernie’s hands dripped, adding to the puddles. Smears and streaks covered most of his frail child’s body. Did Bernie draw the star using his own blood? Bits of that night were a blank. He remembered the awful smell, wondering if he had soiled himself and fearing the consequences. Bernie seemed indifferent to it.
Bernie cut his palm, smearing the blood on the woman before she woke. He was afraid Bernie would want to cut him too, but Bernie turned his attention to the barmaid. When she woke, Willie screamed, and the boy grabbed her tongue, slicing it off. The screams soon became moans. Not as loud now, Crispin thought approvingly.
The moaning reminded him of when she came. Interesting, how similar the cries were, one of pleasure and the other . . . She was tied down (securely, Crispin was careful) and the candles were all around . . . and eyes, he saw eyes coming through a tunnel, watching. Why did he think of a door? He remembered a ripping sound, like fabric being torn, and then a boom like a cannon that rattled the house. Crispin would have ducked for cover if he hadn’t been startled by the sight of black wings and the click-clack, clack-clack sound from wings slapping or breaking through, but from where?
Bernie knelt near the woman . . . his little body rocking back and forth. Willie’s fawn eyes followed the sway. The child was whispering, while she kept trying to say (plead?), “Kill me.” She had no tongue, but he was sure that’s what she meant to say. He held her tethered hands to keep her steady as Bernie continued to slice her. Tears ran down the barmaid’s cheek and fell into thick red puddles.
As he pressed his palms firmly down on her wrists, Crispin allowed himself to wonder what came next. He decided it was best to keep quiet, do as you’re told. Bernie’s hands, clots of the barmaid’s blood clinging to his fingers, rose abruptly as the light from the candles floated free, the flames dancing and spinning.
Fear clutched at Crispin’s throat. What if those flames, what if they mean to . . . Then a sudden sensation, indescribable, oh the pleasure! The “reward,” he realized with delight and wonder. It poured into him as if he were a wine glass, filling him to the brim. Overwhelmed, he gazed at Willie. She looked back with supreme indifference.
As if she found it all incredibly tiresome, her eyes turned away from him, her face relaxed, and tilting her head slowly to her shoulder, she died. The boy cooed as he stroked her hand, his strange face content. The candles dimmed. The floating eyes were gone. “We leave now,” the boy commanded. They cleaned the blood from their bodies and took the ropes from the dead woman. Crispin carried her to her bed. After dressing, they set fire to Willie, her bed, and her small neat house.
“Won’t they know it was us?” He was afraid.
“Stupid Crispin, I told you not to worry. They’ll think she killed herself because you left her. I suggested it already when the bar was full of people.” Bernie was losing patience with him. Crispin decided to keep his doubts to himself. They were on the road a few hours before the pleasure began to fade. He was depressed. He hated the cold.
SLADE HOUSE: A Review
I 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? 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?
I think that 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 prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution that builds satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing, only to turn up after a frantic search. 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.
One distraction common to both novels was the way 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, with characters from one title popping 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 and 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 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. They must eat a soul every nine years. Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. And so with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, they go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans. Out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears. 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” the 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, and 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.
Source: There were eyes.
WARNING: BIG SPOILER ALERT–GO NO FURTHER IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE PASSAGE.
Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.
The Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. It was published by Random House in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page of acknowledgements where the list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, Ballatine–you get the picture–this guy knows people. A look at his bio gives a hint as to why. He’s written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop –a great place to network I’m sure. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls I think, would agree.
The book is 766 pages long. The first 208 pages are really, really good–almost brilliant. The story begins with a five year-old girl (Amy), the child of a friendless single mother who abandons her at a convent. There’s a nun named Lacey, who is a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone. Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.
Then, the narrative jumps to first person in emails where we learn about research going on in the Amazon jungle. They’ve found a batman statue down there. I don’t mean the super hero–this thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved and in a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death (one named Lear is grieving the death of his wife). Several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats; we’re left wondering what the scientists found before they became bat food.
We skip to a secret research facility. The military is busy with Lear’s help, experimenting on a dozen condemned murderers. This segment, with its seeping creeping dreams, experienced by the sex-offender personnel, as they record vitals and clean up the guano of the new “bat men,” who hang upside down in their cells, rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.
Two FBI agents recruit the death row inmates and this is where Cronin’s skill really shines. We meet Carter, a bewildered little man who is on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress, a housewife who rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter, recognizing that the man is not a killer. Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best; we see Carter’s enjoyment–amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.
Then, Lear wants to test the serum on a child. Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner, are sent out to find one who won’t be missed. Back to Amy. Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. Amy makes the TV news when all the animals freak out and try to follow her. To Lacey, Amy explains cryptically” “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never explained to the reader and it happens way before any of the events that might have led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that it, along with Lacey’s prescience will be given an explanation. Not.
Wolgast tries to rescue Amy but is stopped by trigger-happy government guy Richards, a character who is the poster child for overkill–he kills all the nuns for pete’s sake. The writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. The convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Somehow, Lacey tracks them down (she wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns) and we leave her as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) so that Amy and Wolfgast can get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.
The rest of the book–all 548 pages begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world. It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document–a first person account written by a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Her name was Ida. Think The Stand’s “Mother Abigail.” Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t. The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals and protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying and so in desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl–Amy who, after a hundred years has managed to hit puberty. She can’t talk.
I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story, which jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative. Not one pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better–to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section. There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries and we finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts–like giant bee colonies and each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the original, then those connected will remember who they are and will hang around until the sun comes up until they burn and then fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. This all happens at the very end and what really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved. In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure because Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment then beginning the next segment by informing us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.
Unless you want to be really really annoyed, I don’t recommend The Passage.
Congratulations on your success Mr. Cronin. Next time give us a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down. Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take the Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.
Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it. McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs. One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain. There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans go down. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King‘s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything. It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants and it is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand‘s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.” The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies. I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone? Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place.
This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless. In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.
I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.
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