David Mitchell on ghosts and the paranormal

British author David Mitchell returns to the world of his mammoth oeuvre, The Bone Clocks, in Slade House.
British author David Mitchell returns to the world of his mammoth oeuvre, The Bone Clocks, in Slade House.PHOTO: PAUL STUART

David Mitchell's novella Slade House is about a haunted home with a literal taste for its guests

In David Mitchell's new novella, Slade House, a house literally sucks the soul from guests every nine years, on Halloween. Has he ever visited a haunted house or had a paranormal experience?

"Ambiguously paranormal," says the cult British author, whose popular novels Cloud Atlas (2004) and last year's The Bone Clocks, heavily feature reincarnation and ghosts.

"If I were a hardcore, secular atheist who did not for a moment believe that the personality survives death and there's no such thing as a soul, I would say no," adds the 46-year-old, speaking from London where he is on a book tour. "But I'm a confused agnostic and that modifies the belief."

Slade House, released on Oct 27 in time for Halloween, is partly based on the area where his brother lives, a town near London which is "a microcosm of England" with red brick houses from the 19th century and early 20th century, as well as factory remnants dating back to the Industrial Revolution.

Mitchell lives in Ireland with his wife and their two children, but he was born in Southport and raised in Malvern, Worcestershire.

Growing up in England, he was often taken on school tours of "potentially haunted houses" without seeing any ghosts.

It was during his eight years teaching English in Hiroshima, Japan, that he confronted a strong "desire to believe" in a contemporary culture where "hyper-modern, neon reality" co-existed with a deep reverence for the ancient.

He speaks of how Japan stops work for the annual Obon festival, where families honour the dead, and recalls that his then-girlfriend, now wife, stopped him from going up a certain hill on a walk "because there's a spirit".

"Do people believe it, do people not believe it? That's not the point. The culture believes it," he says. "There's perhaps an atavistic, very very ancient hunger, tied up with ancestor worship, tied up with stories told around campfires by Homo sapiens. It's never gone away. It finds its outlet in art, in genre fiction, science fiction, film."

Mitchell could be talking about his books, which have plots ranging from the nearly supernatural - odd coincidences as in his 1999 debut Ghostwritten - to the downright paranormal - souls reincarnated and linked through the generations as in Cloud Atlas, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and made into a film in 2013.

He was also shortlisted for the Booker with his second novel, Number9Dream, in which the borders between dreams and reality broke down as a Japanese man searched for his father.

Then there is last year's The Bone Clocks, which shows the world changing from a heady, adolescent 1984 to the brink of environmental destruction in 2043. Parallel to this narrative is the battle between two paranormal societies to control the fate of humanity.

The Bone Clocks references characters from Mitchell's earlier novels, adding to the epic feel of the narrative, and Slade House exists in this same tight universe.

The author says he did not set out to follow the example of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of his favourite writers, and build a different universe for his fiction.

"It happened in three stages. First stage, I connected my books because it felt cool and fun. Not deep literary reasons, cool and fun," he says.

"Second stage, characters who existed in previous books, when they came into new books, brought history with them. I don't make the assumption that the reader has read the book, but if the reader has, then the characters come with preloaded backstory and feel more full-fleshed. Like meeting an old friend at a coffee shop, rather than meeting a stranger at a speed- dating convention.

"Third stage was realising that I'm evolving a world and writing entities that I'll spend the rest of my life writing about."

Slade House began as a short story published in micro-instalments on Twitter last year, when he was supposed to drum up publicity for The Bone Clocks.

"Writing pre-publicity papers for newspapers didn't interest me very much," he says and having a lot of material that he had not managed to include in The Bone Clocks, he decided to instead share the short story that ends up being the first chapter of Slade House.

"It raised more questions than it answered, so the other parts of the book are answers to the questions raised in part one," he says.

In a grisly tribute to the titular home of his novella, which snacks on new souls every nine years, Mitchell calls Slade House "a starter course for The Bone Clocks, or a side dish for people who read The Bone Clocks".

It is also metafiction about the experience of being swallowed up in an imaginary world through reading and writing.

An avid reader, he grew up on the speculative fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Tolkien and was also consumed by classics such as Richard Adams' epic tale of a rabbit warren, Watership Down, and the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean.

"I create realities, we all do. Like the Slade House, there's a door, which is a book, and you go through that door and it's Narnia, it's not real, but if it's not real, how can we care about it so much, how can it affect your heart rate and adrenal glands?" he says. "Maybe we can look at the word 'real' in different ways."

•Slade House ($26.95, Sceptre) is available at major bookstores

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Consumed by fiction'. Print Edition | Subscribe