“The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward is the kind of horror that seeps into your bones, the kind that makes you think you might be a little messed up for even reading it, the kind that makes you want to stare the author straight in the eyes and ask, “Who hurt you?”
This is the kind of book that reminds me why I love horror. It is a genre that allows for exploration of the awful, terrible, horrible parts of humanity in order to find something that is strangely beautiful. It exposes our deepest feelings like a raw nerve, like cold air on minty teeth. It shocks us into remembering we are human in the sense that we are mere flesh and bone, yet we are also extraordinary creatures able to contemplate our existence.
Broadly, the novel follows Ted, a man living alone in his mid-30s, his daughter Lauren, his lesbian Bible-reading cat Olivia and a woman named Dee who lost her younger sister in an abduction years ago. Most of the book takes place in Ted’s house or the surrounding woods area.
Like most horror, Ward’s book takes its emotional undercurrents from unavoidable mortality; like great horror, it utilizes fear to force readers to contemplate that mortality.
Ward writes, “What was Dee feeds the earth. Her scattered bones sink into the rich changing humus. No ghost walks under the spreading trees. What’s done is done.” She executes the existentialism in this passage in a sad yet satisfying way, like releasing a deep breath.
This book warmed my horror-loving heart because it implements genre tropes in ways that are new and exciting, especially for the literary form. Ward expertly uses the horror concept of the fantastic, which describes the state of teetering between believing alternatively in a supernatural or a psychological explanation for events. “The Last House on Needless Street” keeps the reader on the knife’s edge of the fantastic for most of the book, which contributes to building the suspense and tension that propels the story forward.
Ward also innovates the tropes of medical and body horror, which are routinely explored in detail in the visual form but are more challenging to accomplish in the literary form. Medical horror plays on most people’s preconceived fears of doctors and medical situations — lack of control, sharp instruments, harsh lighting, blood. The real villain of the story, though not revealed in her entirety until the end, is Ted’s mother. She abuses him by performing unnecessary and painful medical procedures, during which he is not allowed to make any noise or move at all. Every depiction of abuse in this novel is uniquely horrifying, but that of Ted’s mother is particularly bad, especially with its roots in make-you-squirm medical horror.
Speaking in younger Ted’s narrative voice, Ward writes, “Some of the cuts were the invisible kind, he couldn’t see or feel them at all. Mommy told him that these were the most dangerous kinds of wounds. She opened these cuts again, cleaned them and sewed them back up.”
The revulsion that dawns on us as we realize what is happening to Ted in this moment is compounded by his youthful, innocent voice. The actual description of the “procedure” is short and cold: “‘The third incision,’ she said, ‘is superficial, outer dermis only.’ Her hands followed the words.” Ward doesn’t need to give us anything more than that; our mind will supply the rest.
I had a conversation the other day about how literature depends not on plot, but on style. This book’s style is so beautiful — unexpectedly so for its genre and content — that I forgot that plot itself can be just as riveting. Ward expertly weaves together plot points and metaphoric images to create something that I, quite frankly, am in awe of. I told my roommates that I couldn’t hang out with them yet (on a Friday night, no less) because I was on the last 50 pages of this book and I simply had to finish. I recommend giving yourself the time to read the last hundred pages in one go. I read the first half over the course of a week and was interested but could easily put it down to check my phone or have a conversation. But when the last half came around, I was glad that I had invested my time in the first half.
This novel is dynamic. Burning questions keep you plunging forward: Where does Ted’s daughter go when she “goes away?” What, exactly, is wrong with Ted? How did the cat learn to read the Bible? Why can the cat talk? What really happened to Dee’s sister? What happened to Ted’s parents?
The book answers all these questions — and eventually lets you know that you were asking the wrong questions all along. The possible villain also changes and perpetually remains on rotation; just when we think we’ve figured out who it is, something new is revealed. The mystery of its evolving story isn’t annoying, as if the book is trying to trick you. Instead, it’s exciting. This book had me writing “holy shit!” in the margins. I literally gasped out loud at parts of this book, making me glad I was reading it alone in my bedroom. It makes you feel smart, the way a good detective puts together the clues at the end of a story. Somehow the ending is peaceful and happy, which isn’t cheesy in this case because everyone in the novel has endured such hardship that a peaceful ending is the least they all deserve. It’s a weird book. But it ends in a way that makes me somehow feel tranquil.
One aspect of this novel that struck me was the inclusion of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, in the plot. I know this genre can have a reputation for vilifying mental illness, especially DID, so I was wary of mental illness coexisting so closely with horror in this novel. However, the villain is not the person with mental illness; it’s the abuser who is actually evil. DID, in this case, is a way for someone being abused to cope with that abuse. The person with mental illness is not vilified, and neither is the condition itself; as a careful reader, I was left with no negative feelings about DID or the character who has it in the novel.
Ward wrote in her afterword that she did a lot of research on DID and had long conversations with people who live with trauma-induced DID. I know that horror is about creating and using fear; Ward creates fear surrounding the abuse the characters suffer at the hands of others, but we as readers are never taught to fear DID itself. In this way, Ward does not use mental illness as a thing to be afraid of and, instead, treats it as a fact of the characters’ realities — as something horror curls itself around just like any other element in the novel.
In the end, I can do nothing but recommend Ward’s novel. It is constructed with extraordinary care. Each element finds its way back to each other, and they complete each other in unbelievably satisfying ways. This is a book that you can only see clearly at the very end — which means it’s the kind of book that must be read twice. Even after two reads, I am confident that there will continue to be details, little tiny snippets that Ward scatters throughout the novel, that resolve themselves in their entirety at the end of the book. The satisfaction at the twist at the end and its reveal can only be experienced once, but Ward’s prose makes this enjoyable beyond the plot and uncovering the nested secrets of the novel.
It is cinematic in a way that never forgets it is literary. It is horror that is about fear and love and death and survival.
Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached by email@example.com.