YA Weekend Audio: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Listening Library (August 25, 2020)
Length: 8 hrs and 11 mins
Narrators: Kristen DiMercurio, Alex McKenna, Jason Culp
Okay, I don’t often find YA horror to be all that scary, but Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis was definitely a bit spooky! In it, we follow Lola Nox, daughter of Nolan Nox, a celebrated horror film director who first made his name with the prohibition-era gothic piece Nightjar, which has since become a cult classic. It certainly also helped put the small mining town of Harrow Lake on the map, which was where most of the filming took place, not to mention it was the hometown of the movie’s lead actress, Lorelei.
Captivated by the young star, Nolan eventually married Lorelei and moved to New York. Lola was born, but not too many years after that, Lorelei walked out on the family, leaving her daughter to be raised by an egocentric and often emotionally unavailable father. At least, that’s what all the entertainment rags say anyway, and as Lola hasn’t seen or heard from her mother in years, there’s no reason to doubt Nolan, who may be overprotective and disparaging at times, but he’s also the only family she has left. And so, after coming home one day to discover him bleeding out from multiple stab wounds, Lola is shaken at the murder attempt on her father and terrified to consider what might happen to her if he died. Next comes the shock that she will be sent to live in Harrow Lake while Nolan is in recovery, with a maternal grandmother that she’s never met.
Upon her arrival, Lola is disturbed to find a town perpetually stuck in the 1920s style of Nightjar, the movie being its only claim to fame other than the historic landslide that purportedly killed almost half its residents. As a result, Harrow Lake is a haunted place where a local myth has sprung up around a monster known as Mr. Jitters who lives underground and emerges periodically to abduct victims to drag back to its lair. To appease him, children do weird things like hang their teeth in trees with strings, which is both super gross and a little creepy. Lola’s grandmother turns out to be a strange old lady as well, who’s always mistaking her for her own daughter Lorelei and insists that Lola dresses up as Little Bird, the main character from Nightjar. With no cell phone coverage or internet at the house, Lola is forced to find other ways to entertain herself, like exploring the abandoned amusement park or the depressing town museum that mostly features exhibits to do with Nightjar.
In her wanderings and interactions with the townsfolk though, Lola begins hearing unpleasant rumors and stories about her mother, including the one about her possible connections to Mr. Jitters. Something made Lorelei want to leave Harrow Lake all those years ago, which may also explain her current disappearance, and Lola is determined to find out what—even if it means unearthing some terrible, spine-chilling secrets.
It might not be too surprising to hear that, more so than Lola or any other character in this book, it was the town of Harrow Lake that stole the show. While it is not a happy place, it has its appeals—especially if you have a penchant for dark and macabre horror settings. Reading about the town is like stepping into a dream or like being stuck on a page in a storybook where time never truly moves forward. There’s a kind of sad beauty to it; like an insect trapped in amber, it is unable to escape its purgatorial state yet also prevented from putting itself out of its misery by completely fading away, thanks to the many fans of Nightjar who delight in seeing the town as a kind of living tribute to the film. Whatever is left of Harrow Lake survives on the meager tourism the movie brings in, so the locals are forced to play it up for all it’s worth.
The supernatural aspect is also nicely worked into the story, invoking an atmosphere and tone that’s very reminiscent of an 80s creature feature like Pumpkinhead or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Visitors may come and go, but the people of Harrow Lake are stuck with more problems than their own resident monster in Mr. Jitters. Poverty and a bitter resentment towards outsiders, especially ones such as our protagonist from glitzy New York, also result in an aura of uneasiness following Lola wherever she goes, not to mention her own mental hang-ups and anxieties regarding her parents. Consequently, we have a slow-simmering kind of horror that is subtle but no less effective, as the author’s strategy relies mainly on arousing ideas to create frightening scenarios, encouraging the reader’s imagination to do most of the work. That said, there are a few scenes where Ellis is certainly not shy about doling out all the disgusting details, and as someone who simply can’t deal with teeth, eyes, or nails used in horror movies, there were a couple incidents that downright repulsed me.
All in all, I don’t think Harrow Lake would be enough for readers looking for a more “in your face” horror novel, but if you’re more for the creeping dread of a campfire ghost story or disturbing urban legends, then it just might be for you. The ending was also satisfying in its own way, and the audiobook did a fantastic job with putting you right in the scene with its clever use of sound effects and outstanding voicework. Great performance by all the narrators.