Starling House is the central mystery of Eden, Kentucky. Eden is a company town, and that company is Gravely Power, who provides energy to a wide swathe of the southeast. They also poison the air, soil and water of Eden. Periodically the government imposes fines, and the Gravelys pay them and move on. Starling House is an isolated mansion in the woods, close to an abandoned mine shaft that goes deep into the earth. There is less “history” about Starling House than there are rumors, and Opal, an orphaned, scrappy loser, trying to take care of her sixteen-year-old brother, has grown us hearing those rumors, which include murder, and sightings of white tigers and other, stranger animals.
Starling House, published in 2023, is Alix E Harrow’s dark and hopeful Southern gothic, creating a magic world underneath a struggling coal town that she writes with about with clear, unsentimental vision.
After Opal’s mother drowned in a single car accident, Opal doesn’t let herself have hope. She does have dreams though—about the house, with the locked gates, decorated with grotesque animal figures, of a light in the attic window, of a sense of being welcomed. One evening after work, she walks up to the house. While she’s looking at the gates, she cuts her hand on one of them, setting in motion a story of destiny, choice, history, and stories.
Starling House was built by Eleanor Starling, a reclusive widow who published a strange children’s book called Underland. In that first visit, Opal clashes with the current resident of the house, the angry, reclusive Arthur. Despite Arthur telling her to leave (his exact words are “run”), Opal returns to the house, which, strangely, lets her in through the gates.
The point of view moves from Opal’s smart, bitter and funny voice to Arthur’s third-person, brooding one. Through Arthur, we learn there is no literal Starling family line. People are drawn to the house from everywhere. Those people call themselves Wardens, and are guarding a portal to the real Underland. Even with their vigilance, they cannot prevent the Beasts of the Underland from slipping out and wreaking havoc in the town now and then. The nearly sapient house guards the portal to Underland and supports the Guardians as best it can. When a Guardian rejects their calling, or is killed by the Beasts, the house calls for a new one.
To Arthur’s surprise and dismay, the house welcomes Opal. Arthur is planning an act of sacrifice and destruction, to ensure that no one else has to pledge their life to this cause, and Opal is a complication.
While the house itself, with rooms that shift from floor to floor and magic that manifests without warning, is fun, the pleasure of the book was in the layers of stories, legends, and false history Opal peels away in a desire to get answers. Whether it’s Wikipedia, old newspaper clippings, or recordings of oral histories, the dark and real story of Eden is unearthed for us. The use of footnotes deepens the sense of distance and mystery, giving the reader a sense of literary distance, while engaging in cool, ironic fact-checking of many of the Starling House stories.
It’s no coincidence that the power plant is called Gravely Power, not Gravely Energy, because one of these stories and how people maintain power, in no small part by erasing and revising history. Gravely, which claims the mineral rights under Starling House, is not the only adversary Arthur and Opal face. As soon as Opal starts working there, she’s accosted by Elizabeth Baine, a heartless corporate fixer, representing “interests” who want to study the house. She is ruthless, threatening to get Opal’s custody of her minor brother revoked if she doesn’t provide information on the house, specifically, a certain set of keys.
Harrow’s secondary characters are wonderful, like crusty Bev who lets Opal and Jasper live at the Garden of Eden Motel, and Charlotte, the librarian who is finishing up a master’s degree in history. It’s pretty clear that the footnotes are hers. Opal is a flawed character, tunnel-visioned and self-centered. She had to be to survive, but it means she often cannot see what is right in front of her nose, and Harrows depicts that beautifully, often hilariously. In contrast, Arthur’s suffering springs from guilt and loss, and makes his half-baked attempts at heroism and self-sacrifice even more touching.
The magic, the history, the house itself, are all wonderful, but strangely, I was most engaged by the way the town of Eden reveals itself to us. Against a magical mansion in the woods, Eden is gritty town on life-support, struggling to survive. The irregular predation of the Beasts doesn’t help, but it’s not the biggest problem. Opal isn’t the only person in town who doesn’t even try to have hope. Harrow unsentimentally reveals the reality of a dying coal town.
There is enough magic and enough stories to satisfy nearly any fantasy reader, and a grounding realism that will please many—and there’s always Harrow’s exquisite prose.