• The Good: A haunted house; a small town mystery; invisible monsters
  • The Bad: Weak secondary characters; may be too slow-paced for some
  • The Literary: Book-within-a-book; enjoyable prose

Opal lives with her brother in a dirty hotel in Eden, Kentucky, and all she wants is to be able to give him a chance to get out. So when she gets an unexpected job offer to clean the Starling House, she dismisses the fact that everyone in town thinks it’s haunted, and the brooding caretaker Arthur Starling, and the fact that she’s been dreaming about the house for years.

I like a lot about this southern gothic fantasy with hints of horror and romance. First, there’s a novel-within-a-novel. The only famous thing to ever come out of Eden is the children’s book The Underland, a book of monsters by E. Starling, the reclusive nineteenth century author who also built Starling House and then disappeared.

Opal herself is quite strong, independent, and stubborn. Harrow captures the details of her poverty well, from Opal’s crooked teeth, to her job at Tractor Supply that schedules her just infrequently enough that they don’t have to provide health insurance, to Opal’s attitude toward charity. Opal understands that nothing is free and hates when anyone pities her.

Once Opal starts cleaning Starling House, she opens rooms covered in dust and cobwebs, untouched for decades. The house shows her new rooms that couldn’t have physically existed before. Arthur sulks moodily in his study with fresh cuts and bruises he refuses to explain, which mar his already ugly face. It’s rather cozy in its fantasy horror, reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast.

In some veins of Southern Gothic, the horror doesn’t come so much from the literal monsters, but from the suppressed horrors of the past. The American predisposition to act like colonialism and slavery never happened is still alive and well, and it’s particularly strong in small towns. In Eden, one family lusts after power and money for centuries, keeping their coal plant alive and thriving because of murder and corporate apathy, and in spite of damages to the surrounding ecosystem and the townspeople’s health.

The novel feels rooted in its location and history. Opal is trapped in Eden; the Starling House is haunted by the past; even Eden is trapped in its own historical evils. History is written by the winners, but Opal and Arthur manage to tease out some truths. I wish the mystery unfolded slower instead of an info dump all at once at the end, though.

Despite this being classified as an adult novel, Opal feels more like a teen than a twenty-something struggling to raise her younger brother, so this would be appropriate for YA audiences. Even the romance is tame and sweet.

Highly recommended for fans of southern gothic fantasy and old haunted houses that like their tenants!