By Marty Mulrooney
Harrow Lake is a young adult thriller/horror mystery written by Welsh author Kat Ellis and published by Penguin Random House. When Lola Nox’s father – a celebrated horror filmmaker – is brutally stabbed in their New York apartment, she finds herself sent off to stay with a grandmother she’s never met in the eerie town of Harrow Lake.
He doesn’t answer. His eyes roll like he’s struggling to focus, nostrils flaring. Pain – intense pain. I’ve seen the look before, I guess, but only on-screen or on-set, and never from him. He’s faking – he must be. Acting. Unless… is he doing this to teach me a lesson? To punish me for leaving the apartment? How am I supposed to react? What’s the Optimal thing for me to do?
Described as ‘Stephen King meets Hitchcock for the Netflix generation‘, Harrow Lake begins with a heavily redacted transcript of an interview with director Nolan Nox for Scream Screen magazine. The interview is being conducted to mark the twentieth-anniversary of Nightjar, a cult horror movie filmed in Harrow Lake whose shoot was plagued with strange disturbances, including the disappearance of a crew member.
The film’s star, Lorelai – Lola’s mother, a Harrow Lake local – also disappeared after revisiting the town following her father’s death. Reading the transcript is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure; the redacted sections are scratched through with dark black lines that resemble a botched scan or photocopy. However, one important paragraph can clearly be read: Lola also disappeared a year before the interview after visiting Harrow Lake…
The Mister Jitters puppet is advancing towards the glass. Its stick-like limbs move in sharp jerks. But the strings are slack; I can’t see how she’s doing it.
The puppet raises a hand to tap on the glass with its long, needle-like fingers.
The novel then jumps back in time to ‘One Year Earlier’ (of course), with Lola discovering her father stabbed in their New York apartment. Shortly after, she is sent to Harrow Lake to stay with her grandmother – a total stranger – and begins investigating the disappearance of her mother many years earlier. Knowing in advance that Lola will somehow disappear too only makes what happens next even scarier.
With her suitcase missing, Lola is forced to wear her mother’s old clothes – the clothes that she wore while filming Nightjar. The entire town also celebrates the film’s anniversary each year with a festival, so many of the locals and tourists are dressed in Nightjar costumes. Mobile phone coverage is almost non-existent and the entire town seems to believe in a monster called Mr Jitters. When they lose their teeth, the local children hang them from the branches of the ‘bone tree’ so Mr Jitters doesn’t catch a taste of their bones.
Did I fall asleep?
No, it’s this place, this town where time doesn’t move forward like it’s supposed to. Where stories get stuck inside your head like a tooth burrowed deep in your flesh. I feel like Harrow Lake is working its way inside me.
Kat Ellis rather cleverly takes several tropes of the genre – both literary and cinematic – and reflects them in a funhouse mirror. The idea of a creepy town with a dark past has been done to death and Mr Jitters is effectively a variation on the Slender Man, but Harrow Lake is a beautifully realised location that somehow still manages to feel fresh and unique. I didn’t much care for a subplot involving Lola’s imaginary childhood friend, but the majority of the story being told is intriguing and hair-raising enough to keep the pages turning.
It’s clear from the outset that something isn’t quite right about Lola’s ‘Optimal’ relationship with her father and that her mother’s disappearance was – and still is – highly suspicious. Enjoyment comes from the details being filled in as Lola explores a small town with a gory history that quickly gets under the reader’s skin.
‘He got trapped underground for a really long while,
Then he fed on the dead and got a brand-new smile…’
Not every plot development works and many of the supporting characters are thin, but the ending is satisfyingly clever and it’s easy to imagine this novel being optioned and adapted for the big screen. In the meantime, this literary trip to Harrow Lake will be best enjoyed by fans of the genre, whether they’re a teenage reader or slightly older (like this reviewer, ahem). Just try to ignore the tapping on your bedroom window at night and the little girl standing in the backyard and you should be fine…
8 OUT OF 10