Alix E. Harrow’s novel Starling House is pitch-perfect Southern gothic fiction, a book as difficult to put down as it is to forget.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
“Harrow’s mash-up of twisted fairy tales and Southern gothic fiction is a haunting story of longing, lies, and generational curses.”
I make a playlist for every book, adding and deleting and rearranging as I draft. It’s a useful way to create atmosphere and build consistent aesthetics, and also to burn twenty minutes when you should be writing.
But for this book, the playlist came first. Before it was a book, before it was even the glimmer of a ghost of an idea, it was a song:
Paradise by John Prine
You either grew up with this song—because your parents were the kind of folksy hippies who played “Alice’s Restaurant” every Thanksgiving—or you didn’t. If you didn’t, it’s an absolutely classic 1971 bluegrass protest song about the fate of a Paradise, Kentucky, which was once the coal capitol of the country. In 1963, the TVA built the largest coal-powered power plant in the world there. The air turned so thick with ash that people said you couldn’t hang fresh laundry on the line, because it would turn gray. In 1967, they relocated the townspeople and bulldozed the empty buildings, leaving nothing but the cemetery.
John Prine wasn’t from Paradise, but his parents were, and they drove home from Chicago every summer. By the time Paradise was razed, Prine’s number had come up in the draft; his father mailed him a newspaper clipping about it. When he came home, “Paradise” was the first song he played for his father.
This book began with that song. With the idea of poisoned waters and stolen homes, a paradise lost and remembered only in dreams.
You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive by Tiffany Williams and Darrell Scott
After whiskey and horses, depressing coal ballads are actually Kentucky’s number one export. In 1946 there was “Sixteen Tons” (also about Muhlenberg County), and in 1970 there was “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” In 1997, there was “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” which is still my favorite. Harlan County is on the other side of the state from where Starling House is set, but the story is the same: coal is the only thing keeping you alive, and coal is killing you.
Stay Down by boygenius
This song has been on the list since the beginning. If you grew up in the idyllic, churchy, small-town south—if you didn’t quite fit, if you weren’t invited to the potlucks and never joined youth group–you know how much it can feel like drowning. “Stay Down” is an anthem for the ones that aren’t welcome, the ones who’ve had to split their knuckles over it. I wasn’t a fighter til somebody told me/I had better learn to lean into the punch.
Ill Will Creek by Cole Chaney
I didn’t write a horror novel, but Kentucky simply comes with a certain amount of pre-loaded, built-in horror. “Ill Will Creek” is a new song, but it sounds old, full of devils and hills and bones. It’s a perfect example of what I think of as the Appalachian Gothic, which isn’t really horror, but only an eerie, folkloric atmosphere of dread: There’s a place where the earth and the underworld do meet.
Leaving Eden by the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Starling House takes place in a made-up town of Eden, which is the kind of home it’s hard to love and easy to leave. This song is about leaving. There are crows in the kitchen/There are wolves at the door/Our father’s land of Eden is paradise no more.
I saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops play when I was seventeen or eighteen. It was the first time I understood that the music I grew up with, the music I played (badly) on my fiddle, had deeper and more tangled roots than I’d been told.
In Your Love by Tyler Childers
Starling House is a love story; I’m allowed to have at least one straight-up love song. Tyler Childers is from my Mom’s hometown—and if you knew how tiny that town is, you’d know how weird that is—and “In Your Love” is my new favorite of his. We were never made to run forever/We were just meant to go long enough/To find what we were chasin’ after.
It was released with a music video written by Silas House, another Kentucky icon. Google it the next time you feel like crying in public.
In a Week by Hozier
I could have just used this song instead of writing the final chapter. It would have saved a lot of time.
More seriously, no one else writes songs that so delicately walk the line between gruesome folk horror and tender romance. What, really, could be more romantic that rotting together, side by side?
Front Porch by Joy Williams
More than anything else, Starling House is a book about home. I’ve always loved the concept of home not as a place you stay, or even a place you were born, but a place you can return to when you need to. The imagery here, of a battered front porch and a screen door, of someone coming back after a long time away, gets me every time.
Summer’s End by John Prine
This playlist starts with one of Prine’s earliest hits and ends with one of his last. You can hear how much he changed—how much deeper and rougher his voice got after throat cancer—and how much he didn’t.
If I could have afforded the rights to the lyrics, this is the song I would’ve used as an epigraph for Starling House. Just the chorus, I think, simple and circular: Come on home/Come on home/No you don’t have to be alone.
The song was dedicated to Max, the young son of a family friend who overdosed in 2017. That’s why it’s so plaintive, so nostalgic and elegiac. It’s a song begging someone to come home, written by someone who knows they never will.
But there’s no judgement in this song, no bitterness or blame—just love. And hope, maybe, that someone else will hear the song, and make their way home.
also at Largehearted Boy:
Alix E. Harrow is the Hugo Award winning author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Once and Future Witches, and various short fiction. Her Fractured Fables series, beginning with the novella A Spindle Splintered, has been praised for its refreshing twist on familiar fairy tales. A former academic and adjunct, Harrow lives in Virginia with her husband and their two semi-feral kids.