In Eden, Kentucky, the air is thick with dust.
The dying coal town is the fictional setting of Alix E. Harrow’s “Starling House,” and the smog of fading power and bad luck is enough to suffocate its residents, most of whom live in abject poverty.
For Harrow, writing a book about Kentucky was a long time coming.
“This is the first book that I set fully in, like committed to writing about Kentucky,” Harrow says. “One of the reasons that I had found that difficult to do before is because I find it to be a place of very mixed experiences that I love very, very, very much, and which has just an incredible violence and terror to it.”
Harrow’s Eden is notable for its looming and sinister manor owned by the reclusive Starling family. It’s not a place anyone in their right mind wants to go near.
But Opal, the main character of the book, desperately needs the money to get her brother out of poverty, so she takes a job at Starling House.
Alix E. Harrow is the author of “Starling House.” (Elora Overbey)
“I think what I wanted to say about class and poverty is that poverty is a form of violence and horror in and of itself,” Harrow says, “and that those experiences do emotional and physical harm.”
In writing about class, Harrow joins a long tradition of authors writing Gothic fiction as a way to process the ills of society.
W. Scott Poole teaches and writes about horror and popular culture at the College of Charleston.
Poole says that from its very beginnings in the 18th century, Gothic fiction has responded to historical trauma. It’s insistent that history does not go away.
“What’s frightening in a Gothic novel is not so much that a monster is going to pop out of the closet or from under the bed. It’s almost worse than that,” Poole says. “It’s that the atmosphere of the place itself contains all the evils of the past.”
The terror of the past often traps characters in Gothic horror stories, Poole adds.
“That’s always the threat: that the characters are not going to be able to be free from history,” Poole says “They’re not going to be able to be free from the past.”
The history that comes bubbling up to the surface in “Starling House” is Kentucky’s involvement in slavery. And it’s something Harrow didn’t shy away from.
“I think Kentucky, because it was in the upper South because it was occupied by Northern forces very quickly in the Civil War and didn’t technically secede, I think it gets left out of narratives of Southern enslavement,” Harrow says. “I can’t participate in that.”
The town of Eden blames its bad luck on Eleanor Starling, the mysterious 19th-century author who first owned Starling House.
According to town lore, Eleanor murdered her husband and used his money to build the terrifying and strange mansion that haunts them all.
But the truth is never as simple as it seems. And the pain buried underneath Eleanor’s story is at the core of what sickens the whole town.
In fact, female rage is at the center of many Gothic stories.
“Women’s anger is something that had to be shoved into horror, or really only had a place in horror and Gothic, because it was naturally antithetical to the way things were supposed to be,” Harrow says.
And in recent years, more and more Gothic horror stories about female anger have made their way onto shelves. Poole says it’s not a coincidence that numerous new Gothic writers are women.
“I think it’s really no accident that at a time when legislation is being put forward,” Poole says, “when the high court is making is issuing rulings that seem to be turning back all of the gains of the 1960s and 70s and second wave and then third wave feminism, that we do have an outpouring of the Gothic.”
Gothic fantasy author Ava Reid says “Starling House” exemplifies what Gothic fiction can offer people struggling with pain and trauma.
“There’s a line in ‘Starling House’ that I think sums up everything that I would want to say about the Gothic genre, which is, one girl’s pain has been transmuted into generations of beautiful, terrible, unsettling art,” Reid says. “That’s what Gothic really is to me. It’s this almost refuge for people who want to create meaningful and beautiful art from pain.”
For Harrow, writing “Starling House” meant unraveling the evasive ways in which Americans tell stories about the South, even within their own families.
“In my family stories, it’s magically scrubbed clean of where wealth came from or who worked the land,” Harrow says. “I had to learn many things about my own family and about my own home in undergrad and grad school.”
The trauma of history is a bitter stain on the coal-dusted town of Eden, Kentucky. And while residents of the town may be determined to turn a blind eye, readers will find it impossible to look away.
“There’s not one story about the South,” Harrow says. “It is constantly telling and obscuring many different variations of stories about itself.”
Book excerpt: ‘Starling House’
By Alix E. Harrow
Excerpted from “Starling House” with permission of the publisher, written by Alix E. Harrow and published by Tor Books.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.