Death’s life’s only guarantee, yes? We all know it, yet we’re hardwired to dread it. That dread’s our survival instinct and it serves us well enough when we’re young, but it’s a curse when you’re older.”
I picked up this book only due to the fact that it was written by Cloud Atlas’ David Mitchell and I wanted to see what else he can write. I was purely amazed by the concept until I found out it’s connected to another one of his books that I now have to read to be able to make a whole picture.
So far, the book appeared to be a collection of stories about disappearing people who had the misfortune to become victims of two vampyric twins (brother and sister) who were using a new technique called an orison. Every story in the book is told from the victim’s POV and they all happen nine years apart and they all have one connection to another (with the exception of the house and the twins).
The two vampires fed only on special people, engifted as they called them. The first one was a boy who seemed slightly autistic and his pianist mother.
“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.”
The twins are called Norah and Jonah Grayer and they can appear to be any age they want to their victims. What they need to do is feed them something while the house is on display so that their victim is paralysed, but in order to do so, they have to make their victims more suggestible.
Due to their strong telepathic link between themselves and the ability to read other minds, they can play along and get a victim drawn in.
A dragonfly settles on a bulrush an inch from my nose. Its wings are like cellophane and Jonah says, “Its wings are like cellophane,” and I say, “I was just thinking that,” but Jonah says, “Just thinking what?” so maybe I just thought he’d said it. Valium rubs out speech marks and pops thought-bubbles. I’ve noticed it before.
The reason why the twins have to feed is because their house projection and the garden plus their 9 years of travelling the world in other people’s bodies require loads of energy and that lacking, the orison collapses like a bad rendering.
What do you do when you’re visiting someone’s house and their garden starts vanishing?
As the garden fades, the twins need to get their victim inside the house where the place to render is a lot smaller and thus more vivid. They get the boy in the house by scaring him during a game of tag. This is when the horror first kicks in.
“…but as I watch, the running-boy shape gets fuzzier and becomes a growling darkness with darker eyes, eyes that know me, I run towards the steps of Slade House my feet slipping on the pebbles like in dreams but if I fall it’ll have me, and I’ve only got moments left and I stumble up the steps and grip the doorknob turn please turn it’s stuck no no no it’s scratched gold it’s stiff it’s ridged does it turn yes no yes no twist pull push pull turn twist I’m falling forwards onto a scratchy doormat on black and white tiles and my shriek’s like a shriek shrieked into a cardboard box all stifled and muted—
The boy is eaten but he drops his mother’s fox-head hair pin inside the house.
The second victim is a divorced police-man who stumbles across the entry to Slade House and decides to go in and tell the woman he finds living there that she needs a new lock for the garden door and maybe a new lover..
I’ll give Chloe security and fill the man-shaped hole in her life; she’ll offer me financial security. Seems like a fair deal.
He had been divorced after a 5-years marriage. The way he described it looked pretty cool!
Five years ago, that was. Five years, one wedding, one dismal honeymoon in Venice, four Christmases with Julie’s god-awful pinko tree-hugging relatives, fifteen hundred bowls of Shredded Wheat, two hundred and fifty bottles of wine, thirty haircuts, three toasters, three cats, two promotions, one Vauxhall Astra, a few boxes of Durex, two emergency visits to the dentist, dozens of arguments of assorted sizes and one beefed-up assault charge later, Julie’s still living in our cottage with a view of woods and horses, and I’m in a flat behind the multistory car park.
The detective pays a few visits to the lady in the manor house and he is slowly starting to lose the time notions as he wakes up as all days blend into one another. He finally discovers who his guest is when he is killed by the twins but not until he hears about a voice telling him about the fox-head pin that can be used as a weapon. It was the little boy from before and a trace of his spirit was haunting the house he died in to help future house-guests.
The next houseguests are a group of teenagers on a Halloween investigation. 9 years after the policeman disappeared and 18 years after the little boy, a group of paranormal detectives decides to tackle the mystery of the house.
Among them is the nephew of one of the first eye witnesses to the disappearance of the boy – Fred Pink. In the group, a lovely and rotund girl called Sally is the chosen victim. She hears some voices and someone gives her the fox-pin and tells her to use it as a weapon and get out of the house. But she drank something while inside and now she can’t leave. All 6 teenagers die and Sally’s soul is absorbed by the vampires.
When Sally’s sister receives an invitation for an interview with Fred Pink 9 years after her sister’s disappearance, she takes the call and decides to pay him a visit.
I press my forehead against the dirty windowpane. In the street below Fred Pink’s still having his “quick catch-up with Misters Benson and Hedges.” The streetlights are coming on. The sun sinks into tarmac-gray clouds, over one-way mazes of brick houses, gasworks, muddy canals, old factories, unloved blocks of could have been prettier. For the millionth time I wonder if she’s still alive, locked in a madman’s attic, praying that we’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed. Like Schrödinger’s cat inside a box you can never ever open.
She gives Fred Pink until 9PM to convince her that what happened with Sally was an occurrence of a supernatural act and to hear the outcome. She is distrusting and quite sceptic and while she is recording the mad-sounding interview about an orison and the history of the Grayer twins, she is texting her lover back in New York telling her she’ll leave soon.
Truth has this habit of changing after the fact, don’t you find?
The problem was, the person she was talking with was not Fred Pink. Fred Pink died earlier that year due to a pulmonary disease. She was talking to Jonah Grayer and he managed to sedate her and draw her into their orison well before the so-called interview started. She went off the grid and now was no longer able to contact anyone on the outside.
The best part during the interview, Sally’s sister finds the motive why the Grayer twins wanted to become vampires in the first place:
“Norah and Jonah Grayer wanted to not die. Ever.”
“Don’t we all?”
“Yes. We do. Life everlasting.” Fred Pink takes off his glasses to rub them on his stained shirt. “It’s why religion got invented and it’s why religion stays invented. What else matters more than not dying? Power? Gold? Sex? A million quid? A billion? A trillion? Really? They won’t buy you an extra minute when your number’s up. No, cheating death, cheating aging, cheating the care home, cheating the mirror and the dug-up corpse’s face like mine that you’ll see in your mirror too, Miss Timms, and sooner than you think: That’s a prize worth the hunting, the taking. That’s the only prize worth hunting. And what we want, we dream of. The stage props change down the ages, but the dream stays the same: philosophers’ stones; magic fountains in lost Tibetan valleys; lichens that slow the decay of our cells; tanks of liquid whatever that’ll freeze us for a few centuries; computers that’ll store our personalities as ones and zeroes for the rest of time. To call a spade a spade: immortality.”
Just before Sally’s sister is drained of her soul, something happens that is different from all the times before. There’s an apparition in their midst, a large woman takes a fox-pin and stabs Jonah Grayer through the neck as he started feeding. The soul is free and the Orison nearly collapses. The twins now have to wait another 9 years to grab a soul in.
Marinus is a psychologist who is drawn in by the prospect of talking to Fred Pink who might still be trapped in the house.
She is very weary of going inside the twin’s orizon and based on the twin’s internal conversations, you can hear that the brother who had been stabbed is very weak and nearly crazy for having been cooped up in the house for 9 years. He and his sister share a very special bond and that bond is now stretched to its limits.
I think of my brother and me as fetuses sharing Nellie Grayer’s womb, one hundred and sixteen years ago; and of our birth-bodies, sharing our lacuna for eight decades. Strangers are “They,” a lover is first a “You” and then a “We,” but Jonah is a half of “I.”
Marinus refuses to eat anything that is offered to her and the garden and the house look decrepit due to the lack of energy in nearly 18 years since the last soul was eaten. They manage to get her into the house before the garden rendering collapses and then they make sure she blacks out before re-setting the scene in a mental institution and telling the psychologist she’d been in an accident and she has to take a painkiller with some water.
This is when all sorts of things go wrong as the water offered was Evian and the doctor knows that no NHS hospital offers Evian Water with a pill. She sees through the twin’s disguises and manages to start off a fight and finish it too. She kills Jonah and manages to make a tear in the orizon where normal time starts flooding in and killing the physical body of Norah Grayer.
Dark skin in the dark space, she watches me watch her, a hunter watching her cornered quarry, our optic nerves connecting our souls. Jonah’s murderer, Marinus the Horologist, who brought death into our stronghold. Yes, I hate her; but how far short it falls, this petty, neutered verb. Hatred is a thing one hosts: the lust I feel to harm, maim, wreck and kill this woman is less an emotion I hold than what I am now become.
The house is destroyed and the woman left.
Without its birth-body anchoring it to the world, the soul of Norah Grayer is dissolving; momentarily it hovers in the midair space once occupied by the attic of Slade House. Was that my life? Was that all? There was supposed to be more. Many, many decades more.
She floats to a nearby house and enters the body of an embryo inside a pregnant woman’s body.
“You killed my brother, Jonah Grayer—and I kill you now and for all time . ”
Slade House – From the book
From up above, Slade Alley’d look like half a swastika. High walls ran along the entire length, with no overlooking windows.
Slade Alley cuts through black shadow before turning sharp left under a feeble lamp that pulses dimly. If I was a “presence,” this is the kind of place I’d be drawn to.
Slade House could be the mouth of a miniature black hole.
“Slade House is their life-support machine, Sal, but it’s powered by souls, and not just any old souls. It’s like blood groups: The type they need is very rare, and your soul is that very rare type. We have to get you out. Now. We’ll go down the stairs, out via the kitchen, across the garden, and once we’re in Slade Alley, I think we’ll be safe. Safer, anyway.”
“The operandi works provided our birth-bodies remain here in the lacuna, freeze-dried against world-time, anchoring our souls in life. The operandi works provided we recharge the lacuna every nine years by luring a gullible Engifted into a suitable orison. The operandi works provided our guests can be duped, banjaxed and drawn into the lacuna. Too many provided s, Jonah. Yes, our luck’s held so far. It can’t hold forever, and it won’t.”
The Sayyid followed an occult branch called la Voie Ombragée, or the Shaded Way, and lived in a ‘dwelling of many rooms’ by a fast-flowing stream at a ‘high neck of a secret valley’ a day’s ride from Algiers;
“How did the Grayers achieve what you’re saying they achieved?”
“A quartet of psychosoteric breakthroughs. First off, they perfected the lacuna. Which is what? A lacuna’s a small space that’s immune to time, so a candle’ll never burn down in it, or a body won’t age in it. Second, they enhanced the transversion their Sayyid’d taught them—what the New Age jokers call astral projection—so they could venture out from their bodies, as far as they wanted, for as long as they wanted. Third, they mastered long-term suasioning, so their souls could move into a stranger and occupy that body.
“So the Grayer twins are a pair of wandering Jews hitching rides in hosts while their own bodies stay dry-frozen in a bubble back in Slade House where it’s forever 1931?”
Fred Pink knocks back his brandy. “1934. It took them a few years—and a few lab rats—to perfect their modus operandi, so to speak. But there’s a catch. This system won’t run off the mains. It runs off psychovoltage. The psychovoltage of Engifteds. Every nine years the Grayers have to feed it. They have to lure the right sort of guest into a…kind of reality bubble they call an orison. The orison’s their fourth breakthrough, by the way. Once the guest’s there, the twins have to get them to eat or drink banjax. Banjax is a chemical that shrivels the cord fastening the soul to the body, so it can be extracted just before death.”
“And why weren’t the Grayers’ preserved bodies in their attic lacuna destroyed by the bomb?”
“ ’Cause in the lacuna, it’s always a few minutes after 11 P . M . on Saturday, 27 October, 1934. The very second the lacuna went live, so to speak. If you’d been there watching, you’d’ve seen the Grayers vanish, whoosh, like you’d just glimpsed them from a fast train hurtling by at the speed of time, so to speak. But inside the lacuna, it’s that moment eternally. Safer than the deepest nuclear vault under the Colorado Rockies.”