Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis comes beautifully packaged in a VHS-style slipcover with a faux rating/advisory (“nerve-shredding tension, nail-biting thrills”); the book itself is styled as a VHS cassette. Something of an odd choice for contemporary YA, where – notwithstanding the recent boom in 80s nostalgia – a large part of the target audience may never have played a VHS tape. But with its darkly satisfying tale of a controlling and obsessive horror auteur, a town stuck in its past as a 1920s film set, and the secrets of generational abuse, Harrow Lake is a compulsively readable treat for horror fans of all ages.
The prologue is an interview transcript where VHS tracking lines partially obscure the text, inviting us to draw our own conclusions. Nolan Nox, a celebrated horror director, is discussing his seminal film Nightjar. We learn its grim topic – a Prohibition-era town descends into madness, paranoia, and eventually the ritual cannibalism of the heroine, Little Bird – and about a crew member disappearing on the film’s set in Harrow Lake, a town plagued by landslides. Lola, the director’s teenage daughter, also disappeared in Harrow Lake twenty years later. As a hook, it’s incredibly tantalising – made more so when we meet our narrator, Lola, and find that her mother was the actress who played Little Bird, now missing without a trace.
I was a little disappointed to see the “VHS tracking lines” technique not featured further until the end of the book, but there the sparsity of its use absolutely paid off – the bookending is both clever and fresh-feeling. Harrow Lake shares much of its DNA with Marisha Pessl’s majestic Night Film (a much longer adult novel, also using meta-horror techniques, about the disappearance of a horror auteur’s daughter) but is far more plot-focused: the narrative whips along, partly because Ellis’s writing is well-pitched and doesn’t distract, partly because Lola’s narrative voice is both smart and self-conscious. Steeped in horror film lore, Lola’s habit of referencing everything from Interview with a Vampire to Silent Hill (which could be annoying in the hands of another writer) is so recognisably the voice of a teenager, and one who frames the world through her father’s eyes. This quickly becomes sinister – Lola knows what Nolan considers “optimal” or “sub optimal”, and these words crop up again and again in her internal narrative; Lola’s young life has been one of control.
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Nolan’s utter possession of his daughter is a skin-crawling theme throughout the novel; Ellis delivers a pitch-perfect depiction of emotional abuse and manipulation. Lola’s story starts when she discovers Nolan has been attacked – stabbed multiple times in a frenzied assault in his study – and is packed off to stay with her maternal grandmother at Harrow Lake. Her instant reaction is that she’ll be free of him: “the thought is a silverfish, quick and slithery”. We learn about his laughing reaction to her desire to learn to drive (“where would you go?”); his refusal to let her cut her hair; his five-day silent treatments; his wholesale theft and desecration of her creative ideas. As the novel unfolds, Ellis masterfully shows the reader what Lola is only just starting to realise: that Nolan is a monster masquerading as an eccentric genius. The pay-off to the Lola-Nolan narrative at the novel’s close is genuinely shocking, but well executed. The current vogue for unreliable narrators sometimes leads to strained conceits (narrators inexplicably forget their actions, or teasingly omit to mention them) – here, Lola’s denouement arises organically from the abuse she’s suffered.
Harrow Lake (the town) is a delicious setting for a novel. As Ellis’s beautiful but unshowy writing remarks, “Harrow Lake is a held breath”. Stuck in its Nightjar mode, its locations make the novel read like a cinematic experience: the abandoned fairground, the dusty town museum where “the air smells like paper and time”, the creepy sinkhole-prone woods. In those woods, children string up lost teeth to propitiate the local boogeyman: Mr Jitters, trapped underground by a cave-in, who survived by eating the dead and now reappears at intervals (heralded by a tapping or chittering) to drag off further victims. There’s a wealth of town lore – in some places simply too much, as the book benefits from an otherwise tight focus on the disappearance of Little Bird and her possible connection with Mr Jitters – and a small cast of local characters who are all sharply drawn.
This period-tinged setting gives Ellis the opportunity to explore how women are forced into gendered roles. Harrow Lake is a town trapped in the past, and Lola is similarly trapped when her suitcase is stolen and she must don Little Bird’s 1920s wardrobe to conduct her investigations. The past is cloying, exemplified by Lorelei’s supposedly favourite breakfast – canned peaches on toast – and burdensome, as Lola observes: “[Cora] carries a large basket of bread on one arm. It looks old-fashioned and uncomfortable, like most things in this town.” Lola’s grandmother firmly polices these roles, and her appearances make for extremely uncomfortable reading – the complicity of women in oppressing other women, including the breath-taking remark that Nolan “couldn’t keep [Lorelei] in line the way a husband should.” The reader can tell there’s something rotten under those peaches.
Although Harrow Lake features supernatural or “creature” horror – in the legend of Mr Jitters – the novel has more in common with the slow-burning horror of Nolan Nox’s own (fictional) films. There’s poverty, privilege, misunderstanding and the fear of the small town; tension between the townfolk and the visitor from the “modern world” reminiscent of folk horrors such as The Wicker Man. The novel is rich enough that the later introduction of a further horror element, in the form of Lola’s imaginary childhood friend – a creepy doll horror-film prop called Mary Ann – felt oddly redundant. Mary Ann’s existence fits neatly with Lola’s upbringing (and the nightmare of control exerted by her father) but her presence in Harrow Lake felt like an “excuse” for Lola to sleepwalk or wander around at night. Given a setting steeped in Nightjar lore and secrets, Lola’s vanished mother, and her own fragile mental state, I didn’t feel the novel needed that excuse.
Harrow Lake is an intelligent and well-paced YA novel which uses our fascination with films, campfire legends and the uncanny territory of the past to explore the uncomfortable realities of domestic abuse and coercive control. Lola is an engaging narrator, and the largely unseen Nolan Nox towers over both her and the novel like the puppet-master pulling Mr Jitters’ strings. While there’s so much crammed into this relatively short book, Ellis’s beautifully clear writing builds inexorably to a set of truly shocking denouements: the finale explodes out of the claustrophobia of its own setting.
Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis is published by Penguin on 9th July 2020.