Alix E. Harrow and her husband know a thing or two about creepy old houses. Before they were married, they pooled their savings and bought an abandoned house on several acres of land in Madison County, Kentucky, in hopes of bringing it back to life. “It was such a wild choice,” Harrow recalls. “When we closed on the house and walked in, rain was coming into the second floor. We looked at each other and asked, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Nonetheless, over the next seven years or so, the couple forged ahead, completing almost all of the renovations themselves.
It’s not surprising, then, that a mysterious, dilapidated house is the subject of Harrow’s third novel, Starling House. The book features a down-on-her-luck young woman named Opal McCoy who takes a housekeeping job at the titular home, which has haunted her dreams since she was a girl. It’s an eagerly awaited, exceptional follow-up to the bestselling author’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a portal fantasy set in the early 1900s, and The Once and Future Witches, about suffragettes in the late 1800s who happen to be witches.
“What’s funny,” Harrow says, speaking from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, “is that all my other books have historical settings, so with this one, I wanted to do contemporary. But then, of course, when I actually started to write it, I realized, oh, it’s all about the past, actually.”
The author is a pro at genre mashups, having also written two “fractured fables”—A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended—that romp through classic fairy tales. “One of the fun things about writing a house book is that you get to play with all the literary tropes and traditions of haunted houses,” Harrow says. “But then I also know the very literal experience of dealing with an old, rotten house. There’s stuff about patching drywall and glazing old windows that are jokes just for me and my husband.”
Harrow describes her new novel as a Southern gothic Beauty and the Beast, with Opal as the beauty and her employer, Arthur Gravely, the beast—described in the book as a “Boo Radley-ish creature” whose face “is all hard angles and sullen bones split by a beak of a nose, and his hair is a tattered wing an inch shy of becoming a mullet.” Opal is desperate to get her younger brother, Jasper, out of their dingy hotel room and the dying town of Eden, Kentucky, so she takes the generous-salaried job Arthur offers. It’s a big step up from her shifts at Tractor Supply Company, and Opal is beyond curious to venture inside Starling House, despite the fact that inexplicable and terrifying things seem to happen there. For instance, both of Arthur’s parents mysteriously died within the house and Opal gets a strange, bloody cut on her hand the moment she touches Starling House’s gate—a cut that won’t seem to heal.
Harrow was initially inspired by a well-known John Prine song, “Paradise,” about how strip mining destroyed the town of Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. “It’s like a tiny little Kentucky Chernobyl,” Harrow says of what’s left of that town. “Now it’s dead financially and ecologically. So, I was like, ‘What if it had survived? And what if it was haunted more literally? And what about the people who would still kind of cling on and love it despite everything?’ ” Like Prine, whose parents came from Paradise, Harrow has deep Kentucky roots. Part of her childhood was spent two counties away from Paradise. Prine describes how the coal company used “the world’s largest shovel” to dig coal, and Harrow’s father actually rode that same power shovel to the top of a mountain. (The shovel is called “Big Jack” in Starling House.) “Mountain coal is my family,” she says. “I never met my maternal grandfather because he was killed by a coal train.”
Her father, in fact, jokingly accused her of plagiarism because “I’ve just taken all of these pieces of my life and put them into a different collage.” She acknowledges that she incorporated many bits from her past into her book, but is quick to clarify, “It is mostly details, not the overall shape of my childhood. I don’t want to give people the impression that I was seriously impoverished or living on the edge of society, in a motel. I had a stable, loving household and all of that stuff. But the details—like my first job, I graduated from college in the middle of the recession and I worked as a cashier at Tractor Supply in Allen County, Kentucky. So, there are a lot of things that were just familiar to me. But, of course, there is a lot of air between me and the actual characters.”
Interestingly, there’s no trace whatsoever of a Kentucky drawl in Harrow’s voice. She attributes this to her mom’s influence as an English teacher as well as her family’s move to Boulder, Colorado, for three years when she was 10. “You can lose an accent fast when someone makes fun of you for it,” she says.
Harrow began writing this book as she and her husband and two children moved from Kentucky to Virginia, and a sense of yearning informed the process—a feeling that’s hardly new. “I moved around quite a bit as a kid,” she explains, “even within Kentucky. And then when we left for Colorado, it was huge. I remember my dad literally saying to me, ‘Aren’t you a little young for nostalgia?’ I’m just a naturally wistful and nostalgic person. So I had in my head this idea of Kentucky and the idea of home.”
As she began writing Starling House, she realized that she hadn’t set any previous fiction primarily in her home state. “All my short stories were kind of about escape and going on adventures and going through magic doors,” she adds. “Like, finding a way out, which I now see pretty obviously was a fantasy of mine. I think it’s very funny that it was only once my husband and I decided to leave that I wrote a book about staying.” She says she had always wanted to make a home in Kentucky, “but then I had children and the political climate darkened. I just could not find a way to stay, given the means and resources and ability to find somewhere safer and kinder and with more possibilities for my children. So, this book is sort of like the dream of what if somehow, you could find a way to stay?”
Before turning to fiction, Harrow earned a master’s degree in history at the University of Vermont, then taught history at Eastern Kentucky University. She first tried her hand at writing a fantasy novel in middle school, but then didn’t write fiction again until she was in her 20s, working as an adjunct. She started writing short stories “as an experiment” and “I loved it,” she says, laughing.
A sense of history permeates Starling House: Harrow adds intriguing footnotes, as well as a bibliography containing both real and imagined sources. She also created a very convincing fake Wikipedia page within the novel for Eleanor Starling, one of Arthur’s ancestors, a 19th-century children’s writer who wrote a book called The Underland that Opal read as a child. That book plays a huge part in the novel, and harkens back to Harrow’s master’s thesis on British children’s literature in the late 1800s and early 1900s and its ties to imperialism.
“I never had a creative writing class or tried to pursue creative writing since middle school,” she says. “But the skills that you learn in academic historical writing are basically the same. You’re trying to build an argument about the world, you’re trying to make a narrative that makes sense based on little bits and pieces in support of your cause. All the research skills and all the organizational skills and the belief that if you just keep writing, eventually you’ll come to your point—all those things are not as far away from fiction as you would think. The same interests led me to history, which are basically just wanting to know why the world is the way it is and how power works.”
The novel’s corporate villain is Gravely Power, started by Arthur’s ancestors, which is lobbying to obtain the mineral rights of Arthur’s property. A relentless, devious company representative named Elizabeth Baine tries to bribe and blackmail Opal into spying on Arthur and photographing Starling House as she works. Harrow was inspired to create Elizabeth after writing The Once and Future Witches and encountering some reader reactions that were “very like, women are good and men are bad and having very little sort of critical engagement with the history of white feminism in ways that I found sort of teeth grating.” Harrow concluded she was ready for a change of pace, deciding her next villain would be a white woman as “certain forms of ambition are not specifically gendered.”
The Southern gothic, Harrow says, proved to be the perfect vehicle for this corporate showdown because one of its central conflicts can be “a huge nostalgia for a time that was just ontologically evil.” Harrow mentions the diverging viewpoints of white Southern gothic writers and Black Southern gothic writers, noting, “That’s why there’s so many different versions of the story of Starling House in the book—often it’s the same story told from a different perspective with wildly different ethics and takeaways.” As Opal hears these conflicting tales, she keeps digging to get closer to the truth, despite mounting danger.
Starling House incorporates other influences beyond Southern gothic, pulling from fairy tales and supernatural thrillers, with a touch of horror. Harrow admits, “I’ve never been particularly faithful to one single genre. I’ve always been kind of a messy reader. And when you come up with a book idea that dabbles in multiple genres, it’s almost like at the beginning of a history paper, when you want to have your historiography. I always want to be doing tropes on purpose. If it’s cliche, it’s a cliche on purpose.”
As Harrow describes her writing process, she sounds more like a historian than a fiction writer. Did she always know, for instance, how Opal would get along with Arthur? “Oh, I know everything from the start,” she replies, laughing. “I am not a casual drafter.” She begins with a general synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter outline before beginning to write. “And then I draft the book and realize that the whole thing is wrong,” she explains, “and go back and change it with a new outline. But very rarely—not never—but rarely, am I drafting a scene and like, ‘Oh my God, it just came out completely differently than I planned it.’ ”
She also notes that she is not “a haunted house person.” “When I wrote the witch book,” she recalls, “I got a number of very sweet and generous messages from people who were practitioners of witchcraft. I was very much like, ‘Oh man, I’m so sorry. Wrong audience.’” She anticipates that readers of Starling House may reach out with similar messages about ghosts and hauntings.
“I’m a huge chicken,” Harrow confesses.
What she is, it turns out, is a comedian—and one of Opal’s many endearing qualities is her often-snarky, sarcastic wit, as shown in both her narration and dialogue. Was her humor hard to write?
“No,” Harrow says with a laugh. “I find my main problem is to stop making jokes and try to rein it in a little bit.”
Photo of Alix E. Harrow by Elora Overbey.