Carolyn Percy reviews Harrow Lake, Kat Ellis’ darkly nostalgic thriller, sure to leave you asking for more.
When her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, Lola Nox is shipped off to Harrow Lake to stay with the grandmother she’s never met. Harrow Lake is a strange town: frozen in time after it was almost completely destroyed by a landslide in 1928. It was this that attracted her father, celebrated horror filmmaker Nolan Nox, who used the town as the setting for his cult horror masterpiece, Nightjar. So Lola thinks she knows everything about the town and that nothing can scare her. But Harrow Lake has a gory history and monster mythology of its own: Mr Jitters, a bootlegger who got trapped underground during the landslide and survived by feeding off the dead. Now he has a taste for flesh and wants revenge on the town that left him to die. Now someone – or something – seems to be shadowing Lola, and her nights are being plagued by sinister sounds, scratchings, and sightings.
Has she inadvertently woken a monster?
Of the many cover quotes for Harrow Lake, my particular favourite is from Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers: “Scream meets The Babadook in small-town USA”. Not only is this a good thumbnail description, capturing the feel of retro, VHS-era horror the book has (something Penguin also saw and took advantage of for their marketing, producing some wonderfully creepy online trailers), but also encapsulating the ambiguity of the book’s horror: the supernatural (The Babadook) vs the human (Scream). Or, as Starburst Magazine put it in their review: “Slow-drip psychological terror with a blatant supernatural element”.
Now, like all genres, horror has some key ingredients and one of these is location. The town Harrow Lake has so much presence it’s almost a character itself. It already has an eerie ‘out of time’ quality, with its architecture suspended in the 1920s, and the annual Nightjar festival (which Lola of course happens to arrive in time for) extends this to clothes and technology. Then there are the film locations: the fairground, built for the film and then left to rot and the sunken church where a camera operator mysteriously disappeared. Lastly, it’s isolated, surrounded by remote, forested Indiana countryside (and it’s a testament to the skill with which Ellis applies her research, as nothing about the setting rang false), and as we know: forests mean peril. Mining has left the forest unsafe, riddled with tunnels and caves.
And then there’s the bone tree, hung with offerings of teeth so that Mr Jitters doesn’t acquire a taste for their bones. The next ingredient is a protagonist, and Lola is an interesting one. She certainly isn’t a stereotypical “scream queen”/ slasher-esque horror heroine, in fact she may come off to some, initially, as unlikeable, being rather prickly and standoffish. But because we see events from her point of view, we learn that this is due to a stifling relationship with a very controlling father who hasn’t allowed her, or convinced her she doesn’t need, normal social interactions with her peers; so she’s used to being a blank slate, behaving “optimally” depending on whoever it is she’s interacting with and beneath this we glimpse a desperately lonely and frustrated soul.
Finally, there’s the most important ingredient: the horror itself. But is the horror of Harrow Lake supernatural in origin or more mundane? Lola, as we discover, is not a reliable narrator, so there’s ambiguity and evidence enough for both. Beneath the monster mythology there are hints of darker things such as controlling fathers, abusive parents and complacent townsfolk. One character – aspiring journalist Cora – maintains that there is just something inherently bad about the town. On the other hand, the town has a history of mysterious disappearances and Lola is plagued by strange noises, visitations and the sensation of being watched/followed, which are impossible to put 100% down to her imagination. This leads to our Monster: Mr Jitters, Harrow Lake’s bogeyman.
He is a brilliant creation: a sort of cross between Slenderman and the Babadook, with a grin that would put Jaws to shame, heralded by the clacking of chattering teeth. The scares are slow burn, creating an intensely eerie atmosphere, with inspiration from across all horror media (there was a moment in the town museum, for example, that reminded me of a similar scene from the video game Fatal Frame 2). All building up to a climax that is satisfying but still with enough ambiguity to satisfy those who prefer their conclusions to be a little more open ended.
It’s also clear that Ellis knows and loves her films, peppering the story with references and mashups (“as if Jigsaw from Saw wheeled his tricycle across the set of Love, Simon.” as an analogy for something being out of place, for example, was one of my favourites). In this way Harrow Lake reminds me very much of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (another book that features an eccentric horror filmmaker) as not since then have I seen a book where horror film tropes and iconography are so narratively important.
Lola’s father may be right in that you don’t necessarily need monsters in order to create fear, but Ellis has created a brilliant one regardless. Harrow Lake creates the horror film inside your head you didn’t know you wanted to see.
Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis is available now from Penguin.
Carolyn Percy is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.