When the advance reader copy of a new book arrives in a fake VHS case, accompanied by a press release written on what looks like an old Blockbuster Video poster – remember them? – it’s enough to pique the interest of even the most jaded of crime fiction reviewers.
There’s been quite a buzz around this YA release, and right from the off it’s easy to see why. The book opens with the partial transcript of a magazine interview with horror film director Nolan Nox. It’s timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his greatest, most highly acclaimed work, Nightjar, and within a few short pages we begin to glimpse something of the character of the man, who comes across as arrogant, short tempered and evasive.
Then the interview abruptly stops and we’re taken back a year to meet Nox’s teenage daughter, Lola. On the surface she’s something of a wild child, living as she pleases in New York. Dig deeper, and another Lola begins to emerge. Yes, she’s something of a rebel, but it’s mainly inside her own head. In reality, she’s bullied and controlled by her possessive, over protective father and watched constantly by his assistant, Lloyd.
As the narrative takes its first tentative steps, Lola is alone in a bar in NYC, surreptitiously watching some of the other drinkers. As she leaves, she is reeled in by Lloyd – for Lola isn’t really allowed out on her own. He bundles her into a car and they head back to the glitzy apartment she and Nolan currently call home. But what Lola finds there sets her world spinning… Her father has been attacked and is lying on the floor in a spreading pool of his own blood.
As Nolan fights for lis life, Lloyd works fast to get Lola away from all of the press furore that’s sure to follow. She’s sent to stay with her maternal grandmother, someone she’s never met before, who lives in Harrow Lake, the little town which was the setting for Nolan’s greatest triumph and a place which still lives off the notoriety brought to it by Nightjar.
There’s something very Red Riding Hood about old granny, who seems to be constantly baking and keeps mistaking Lola for her mother, Lorelei – the woman who abandoned five-year-old Lola years ago and has never been seen since. There are echoes of Lorelei everywhere, for as well as being a local girl, she was discovered by Nolan and took the starring role in Nightjar. The coming weekend, the town will welcome hordes of visitors for their annual festival celebrating the film and pictures of Lorelei are everywhere.
Lola’s case goes missing and she’s forced to wear the clothes from her mother’s wardrobe – so she plumps for the Nightjar costumes still lined up on hangers. Her appearance certainly turns heads, but beneath her brash exterior, Lola tends to steer clear from the limelight. She’s a girl of such contrasts and there are times when you want to jump into the page and give her a big, comforting hug.
Sadly, there’s scant solace to be found in Harrow Lake. With little to no phone service, Lola struggles to keep in touch with New York and stay up to date with her father’s condition. Her grandmother is prickly and decidedly odd and the little town has a strange, unwelcoming air about it. And there’s Mr Jitters, a monstrous bogeyman tightly woven into local folklore, who lures people away and eats their bones. Utter rubbish, right? But then Lola begins to sense him close by…
Harrow Lake is a fascinating, disturbing and hugely unsettling read. Yes, it is pitched at young adult readers, but we older folk can certainly enjoy it too. Horror film fans will love spotting the references liberally scattered throughout this book, and although there are times it can get a little overwhelming as author Kat Ellis seems to throw in everything bar the kitchen sink, it’s generally a neatly contrived plot which has a satisfying denouement.
CLF Rating: 4 Stars