If you’re anything like me and have a deep and passionate love for psychological horror fiction, then you need to read The Last House on Needless Street. This is an extremely dark and twisted story that I promise will grip you from the moment you start reading. Most works of horror build tension slowly, allowing you to dip your toe into the proverbial pool before submerging you. This book shoves you into the deep end the moment you crack it open. I mean this in the best possible way. Good horror fiction not only scares readers, but creates a feeling of dread, and that’s exactly what this novel achieves. As I write this review, I’m actually wary of using the term “horror” to describe this novel, and unfortunately, I can’t tell you why without spoilers. What I can say is that Catriona Ward has delivered a multi-layered novel where just when you think you’ve figured it out, you discover that there’s a whole next layer beneath.
The story primarily takes place in a dilapidated and boarded up house at the end of a cul-de-sac in a wooded area of northern Washington. This house is home to three individuals. Ted Bannerman is unemployed, has a bit of a drinking problem, and suffers from quite a few mental health problems. His daughter, Lauren, comes to visit but is always ordered to stay inside. Her relationship with Ted is a chaotic one, often quite tense and violent. The third member of the household is Oliva the cat, who believes her life’s purpose is to protect Ted, and in her spare time, takes inspiration from the Bible. When a woman named Dee moves into the abandoned house next door, Ted’s somewhat routine life begins spiraling. Over a decade ago when Dee was a teenager, her little sister mysteriously disappeared while her family was on vacation at the local lake. Dee has made it her life’s mission to find her sister and bring her kidnapper to justice.
That synopsis covers the general outline of the story, but it’s also useless, because nothing in The Last House on Needless Street is what it seems. In fact, Ward’s most impressive feat here is that she keeps readers guessing from the first page to the last, even after revealing truths that change everything. I was impressed with myself because I thought I had it all figured out early on, but Ward has constructed an onion, with multiple layers to peel back and try to understand. Who are the Gods that Ted has buried in the woods? What is the mystery behind Lauren’s sporadic presence and where does she go when she has to disappear? Who are the angry green boys living in the attic? Ward has created a surreal masterpiece with multiple points-of-view, time shifts, and so much creepiness with the construction of this dark and mysterious house.
Ward uses unreliable narrators extremely well. Ted has moments when he remembers specific moments from his childhood, and these details might hold important clues to figuring out what is happening. As a child, Ted suffered from severe abuse by his mother. He also suffers from blackout moments when he does go out alone. Usually, Ted goes out with the intention of finding a mother for his daughter. Sometimes, it’s to visit the person he refers to as “the bug man.”
Dee is driven by her obsession to solve her sister’s disappearance and while she seems to be in control, she has moments of losing touch with reality. She is often afraid of going to sleep because “the red birds will come flying into her head.” Lauren’s behavior toward her father is so extremely violent, that clearly she has her own mental health problems. Of course, can we really trust the talking cat who takes her inspiration from the Bible? Nobody and nothing can truly be taken at face value, and you know that something very bad is happening within the walls of this house. Everything in The Last House on Needless Street is old, dirty, or broken. The same applies to the psyches of its characters. The creepy dilapidation of the outside world perfectly mirrors their mental state. No one is who they appear to be, a fact that is lost on them. Ted, for example, is unfamiliar to himself:
“I took the mirrors down some years ago because they upset Lauren. But I don’t need a mirror to know how I look. Her words stung me. Big, fat. My belly is a rubber sack. It hangs like it has been strapped there. I’m getting bigger all the time. I can’t keep track of it. I knock things over, I bounce off doorways. I’m not used to how much space I take up in the world.”
Ward is an extremely talented storyteller, as seen by how the pieces fit into place. The atmosphere in this novel is so dark that it feels as though it was inspired by the works of Shirley Jackson. Ward masterfully plays with your perception of reality, and once you finish this book, your feelings towards these characters will have changed so much. This labyrinthine narrative will pull the rug from under you multiple times, sending you reeling deeper into the darkness.
3 thoughts on “A Fantastic Work of Modern Gothic Horror: Review of ‘The Last House on Needless Street’ by Catriona Ward”
I’m glad you enjoyed this Joel, it sounds terrifying to me!
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