Alix E. Harrow has this knack for writing characters like bruised steel. It’s specifically those dents, scratches, and ugliness that make her work stick out as more enchanting than the entirety of book releases you’ve read in the past year. The Six Deaths of the Saint made me realize Alix E. Harrow was the author for me. She painted a darker world in forty pages with more agonizing emotional impact than over-bloated grim descriptions could ever do. She makes everyone quake in their boots, and for a good reason. Starling House very equally made me shake and shiver.
In Starling House, Harrow splits apart the archetypical structure of fairy tales and transforms it into a Southern Gothic. And it’s the gothic structures that inspired Opal to tell haunted stories to her little brother in their motel room as they scraped by every day in the former coal miner town of Eden, Kentucky. Opal’s story is a truth for many kids in the United States. One marked by the other kids sensing the hunger behind Opal’s smile. And apparently also some animalistic fear that she would kill every single one of them. The classically pretty fairytale princess with luck on her sleeve and a godmother’s promise of a handsome, rich prince is exchanged for what we really want: an acidic gothic heroine and haunted Heathcliff with a face resembling a crow.
But haunted stories are what has made Opal so curious about Starling place, the grand house belonging to a long line of wealthy eccentrics who never seem to show their faces in town. Opal hasn’t allowed herself to dream of Starling since her mom died. The only dreams she caters to are those belonging to her brother. But recently, Starling feels as though it’s reaching, preying for her. Even the new heir can see it trying to get its claws into her. Finding herself pulled into this decayed catastrophe of a house, Opal suddenly finds herself with a new, better-paying opportunity to get her brother out of Eden. When it’s discovered that she’s been cleaning Starling House, a stranger promises financial support for her brother’s dreams. But even for Opal and her not-very squeaky-clean ethical compass, the price of betrayal leads her to more questions about the history of Starling House and its long reign of heirs.
Starling House is like a treasure trove‑full of dusty, monstrous horror story tomes piled around a nerd screaming for a solution to his family’s curse. Because much like the Dutchman needs a captain, Starling House needs a warden to prevent the nightmares from escaping. This is a charming and haunting tale. It’s got the right way of things as Gothics go, something that is lost in this publishing trend. This is a Southern Gothic that goes deep, studying the very facets of the subgenre by balancing its history with the more contemporary costuming of the Gothic. As is her tradition, Harrow looks at the classics but cuts it up like a well-taught surgeon. I love to sink into a story that feels like the author is having fun with unlikeable, miserable people battling monsters and kissing the blood off each other.
Starling House is eerily like the real world we know but are all desperate to escape. Two miserable, but intensely romantic couple is more than a good escape. It’s just the type of dark, romantic, and spooky world I would want to enter if I were to pick up something for Halloween.