Halloween is upon us, and that means it’s time for the spooky and the ghoulish to come out and play. I decided to dive deep this year and breathe in the musty air that the dark basements of abandoned homes have in copious supply. The first book is truly a delight, with everything the casual serial killer fan would want and more. The Last House on Needless Street, by Catriona Ward, is scary in all the right places, and filled with enough clues to make Sherlock himself go mad from speculation.
Needless Street is the tale of the interwoven lives of Ted, Olivia and Dee. Dee, after years of the police’s inability to track down her missing sister, finally feels she has a lead. After making a deal with a shady collector of the macabre, she’s given a photo of Ted. Ted’s already been cleared by the police as having an alibi the day her sister Laura went missing, but she is sure it’s him. Him living close to the lake her sister was taken from only compounds her certainty. Ted himself lives alone. He occasionally gets to see his daughter Lauren, but most of the time he watches monster truck rallies with his cat Olivia, or goes out on dates with women from the internet. Olivia spends a lot of her time being, well, a cat. She pushes stuff off shelves when she’s angry with Ted, and has a long distance love affair with a tabby outside the window. Is Ted the man Dee is looking for? And will Olivia choose to help or hinder Ted?
Lately, I’ve read a lot of books that do a great job of transitioning between different points of view with a change in writing, and Ward’s style is no different. She is really good at presenting mental states, understanding how characters react to things the way that they do, and delivering this information to a reader in clever ways. Ted talks to himself as if he is missing information about the world, constantly reminding himself in small ways what he’s done, or needs to do throughout the day. Olivia, the cat protagonist, sees the world in a very limited way, referring to everyone as lowercase teds, not understanding the notion of people as a concept. She interacts with the world through her tail and paws, unable to actually communicate. Dee filters everything through a single defining event of her life, the abduction of her younger sister. Every action or reaction being evaluated as a reinforcement or rejection of her constant unending search.
The story is not dripping with horror in the way I expected, but a slow burn subtlety that picks up speed as the story progresses. Ward leaves little clues in each chapter, through character interactions, language and mental ticks that peel back the curtain bit by bit, allowing the reader to jump to conclusions. At times I became annoyed with this type of storytelling because it felt like a path I’d wandered down before. I was frustrated by the numerous tropes on display, building an expectation of how the story was going to play out. Even though I felt I was reading something I’ve seen before, Ward kept a steady stream of breadcrumbs that compelled me to finish the book. Slowly, my frustrations turned to admiration for the story as I felt I had been purposefully led by Ward, my biases encouraged, and in some ways weaponized, to reveal something sinister about the horror genre. Ward uses classic genre underpinnings to explore the psyche while upending deeply entrenched horror tropes.
The few moments of terror that occur are vividly expressed by Ward’s writing. The silent screams as you come out of a nightmare, the paralyzing fear of doing something you shouldn’t, and the creeping feeling that you’ve been caught are well realized. She does not overwrite them, allowing the small sentences to be filled in with the reader’s imagination. While I can count the number of times this happened during my reading on two hands, each time left my hairs standing on end. They reached deep into my own psyche and reproduced their effects on my body, and if that isn’t good horror writing, I’m not sure what is.
The Last House on Needless Street is a joy to read. It offers a familiar experience that is slowly twisted through Ward’s dark art of writing. She knows how to hide in plain sight, making her ability to sneak up on you all that more powerful, and equally personal. Her characters are interesting, and their journeys are even more compelling. If I had one complaint, it would be the abundance of tropes, but even then, they serve a purpose that outweighs them. If you’re looking for a story where everything and nothing is as it seems, look no further than The Last House on Needless Street.
Rating: The Last House on Needless Street 8.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.