Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

“As fast-paced as any thriller, as dark as any horror, and as affecting as the most emotional, dramatic work, it is utterly heart-breaking and will put you through the wringer if you let it.”

 

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward - coverIn the last few years, it seems many horror writers have moved away from the genre into more thriller-oriented territory. Or perhaps it only seems that way, for many of their works are still infused with darkness. It might be it’s simply a marketing ploy to try and bypass the seemingly dirty word ‘horror’ can be amongst the general reading public. Whatever it is, it’s still wonderful to see writers who’ve produced some fantastic horror getting wider recognition in the thriller arena. The latest in this ‘tradition’ is Catriona Ward, whose most recent book, The Last House on Needless Street, has just been released to great acclaim. On the surface, it looks like a dark thriller, but also seems to have shades of horror and psychological drama.

Opening with first person narration by Ted, we immediately recognise there’s something not quite okay with him. For a start, his words feel stilted, awkward. The syntax is at odds with who he is; he sounds more child than grown man. Yet he talks about his daughter, Lauren, mentioning she and his cat, Olivia, don’t get on and can’t be in the same room together. So, he’s definitely an adult. Very quickly, we’re also told about the time his house and premises were searched by police. This, in relation to the disappearance of a little girl nearby. We are shown early on Ted was considered a possible suspect, though had a solid alibi. From the offset, seasoned readers will see we’re in the presence of an unreliable narrator. Perhaps the quintessential unreliable narrator. It’s not just that we don’t trust what Ted says. It’s more that everything he says is infused with an off-centre sensibility.

His opening scene sees him dealing with the deaths of birds in his garden. Birds which have been trapped by adhesive to the feeders Ted leaves out. He is distraught and mentions The Murderer. He believes the same person who abducted the young girl years ago is back, tormenting him.

Ted’s reliability is further called into question when we get our first chapter from the point of view of his cat, Olivia. Yes, that’s right. It’s a bold move, and one which might alienate readers early on. Yet, these sections are no less well-written than Ted’s. They show Ward’s powerful command of voice; evident in Ted’s narrative but reinforced with this new character, as it is with later characters such as Ted’s daughter Lauren. Not only that but, like the opening chapter, it is peppered with seemingly random detail which becomes essential later. In this, Ward shows a deft hand in how to foreshadow, to world-build, to layer and construct. It adds depth to an already compelling premise, a depth which pays dividends in the closing pages.

This layering continues with the introduction of Dee. Dee is the now-adult sister of the little girl who went missing. She is fully convinced Ted is guilty and moves close by to find evidence. But as her story unfolds—flashbacks mingled with her often less than legal attempts to find dirt on Ted—we are given to understand she’s done this before. Her inability to move on from the tragedy which tore her family apart manifests as dark, blind obsession.

That word tragedy could be the ultimate descriptor for this novel. Every character is dealing with their own personal demons—yes, even the cat—and not all those demons are necessarily what we think they are. Ward builds and builds, as though constructing a labyrinth, but one which reveals its secrets the bigger it gets rather than obscures. The use of imagery such as the Matryoshka doll is fitting to the story. No simple twists and turns for this writer. Page after page she wrongfoots the reader, and in a delightful way, one that makes so much sense as the reveals come. Yes, delightful, but make no mistake, the book is dark, the author’s assertion that it’s only disguised as a horror novel notwithstanding. It delves into the deepest corners of humanity, the darkest parts of our souls. It shades in folk horror, and while it never fully commits to the supernatural as real, it certainly sidles up to the speculative as a powerful force in humans.

Mostly, though, this is a deeply empathetic examination of mental illness. As we read Ted’s story—complemented and supported by the other narratives—we initially feel we know what makes him tick. With a knowing wink, a smug grin, we think we have it all worked out. And as the book progresses, certain moments reinforce that. Yet, unexpectedly, we come to care about Ted. We fear for him, we empathise with his past, his life, his state of being. And we come to hope we are wrong about him, because if our early suspicions are borne out, it will devastate us.

The Last House on Needless Street is that rare mix of genre and literary. As fast-paced as any thriller, as dark as any horror, and as affecting as the most emotional, dramatic work, it is utterly heart-breaking and will put you through the wringer if you let it. It’s also exceptionally well-written; not just the construction of each individual sentence but the work as a whole. It marks Ward out as an absolute powerhouse of a writer, one easily deserving of the accolades received. For those readers who like to meet their books partway—who allow books to take them on the ride, rather than weigh it down with constricting expectation—there is so much to enjoy, to appreciate here. It’s emotionally devastating and will have you mulling it over for a while, after. But isn’t that what we truly want from our horror, from our dark thrillers? No throwaway beach read, this; this one you won’t forget for a long time.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Viper (Serpent’s Tail).
Hardback: 352 (pps.)
Release Date: 18 March 2021.

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1 comment

  1. Great review. I had a chance to read an ARC of The Last House on Needless Street and really enjoyed it. Ward has produced a book that’s whodunit, why-done-it, literary, and horror-filled.

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