A contemporary gothic fairy tale about a small town haunted by the history it can’t quite seem to bury and the canny, clever young woman who finds herself drawn to the house that sits at the crossroads of it all.
Starling House is odd and ugly and fully of secrets, just like its heir. Opal knows better than to mess with haunted houses or brooding men, but it might be a chance to get her brother out of Eden, and it feels dangerously like something she’s never had: a home.
But she isn’t the only one interested in the house, or the horrors and wonders that lie beneath it. If Opal wants a home, she’ll have to fight for it. She’ll have to dig up her family’s dark past and let herself dream of a brighter future. She’ll have to go down, down into Underland, and claw her way back to the light.
Thank-you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced reading copy, in exchange for an honest review.
I’ll preface this by saying that Starling House was my first foray in Alix E. Harrow’s works (I know, but it won’t be my last, okay?) so I didn’t go into this with any expectations. It’s that time of year, where the leaves begin changing, the weather gets cooler and I start looking to my bookshelves for spooky reads and then I saw this pop up on NetGalley.
The cover design is stunning and immediately piqued my interest, and I’ve heard good things about Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches so I decided to give it a chance. Let me say, I was pleasantly surprised in all the best ways at how well Harrow’s prose and the atmosphere of Starling House fit what I was looking for. Starling House is a southern gothic story set in Eden, Kentucky, a town with a coal mine and entirely too many accidents. It fits into the haunted house sub-genre of horror, but I don’t think it was overly horror, at no point was I scared (and my tolerance is fairly low, I’m not a horror connoisseur). It’s suitable for both YA and Adult audiences (TW: explicit language, allusions to physical intimacy, binge drinking).
“There is no such thing as curses or cracks in the world. Maybe that’s all a good ghost story is, a way of handing out consequences to the people who never got them in real life.”
Opal lives in a rundown motel room with her younger brother. She is a highschool dropout and spends her days working at a Tractor Supply earning enough for them to get by on piquant chicken ramen noodles. Opal is a practical young woman, clearly separating her needs from her wants. Her biggest driver is to rescue her brilliant younger brother from the miseries of Eden and send him to a private highschool where he can excel. How she’ll be able to afford the tuition is a mystery, until she gets a job offer from the strange Arthur Starling.
Arthur is reclusive, he’s never seen leaving the grounds of Starling House. We soon discover that Arthur is a Warden of Starling House. I’ll leave future readers to discover what that entails as the wild rumors around Starling House create an atmosphere of mystery and actual mist at times that I don’t want to spoil. It is however safe to say that our two main characters become intertwined, breaking each other open in ways that they maybe didn’t realize they needed or wanted.
“It’s easier to fall apart when no one is watching you.”
Plot-wise, the first third of the book is a slow beginning with set up and the current status quo being established. Then the remainder of the book picks up and things happen quickly from there. I sat down and read through over half of the book in one go, I couldn’t put it down. The prose is beautifully descriptive without being overly flowery. I’d find myself going back and letting certain lines sink in and ruminate before moving on. The one thing I felt could’ve been stronger was character description and dialogue between them. There are certain descriptions that were used repeatedly that didn’t really lend itself to creating a fulsome image of the character in my mind, different aspects of their appearance could’ve been described instead. Particularly the dialogue between Opal and her brother felt very forced at times, despite how close they were portrayed.
“People like me should know better than to dream.”
The ending of Starling House made a lot of sense and fit really well with where the story was headed, nothing was overly surprising. There are themes of “society doesn’t believe the woman” that come up as the story unfolds that really wrap up well with the closing scenes and resolution. The bigger theme of dreaming and what impact dreams can have, also has a satisfying conclusion. I don’t want to dig into the ending any more than that, but know it was a satisfying ending, in my opinion.
There are two release dates for this one to watch for, it releases in the US on October 3, 2023 and in the UK on October 31, 2023. Either way, no matter where you are, I’d highly recommended picking this one up to add to your spooky season TBR!