When you first pick up The Last House on Needless Street, by Catriona Ward, you probably think (as I thought) you’re in for a classic horror story. All the accouterments are there: you have a strange man living by himself in a house that’s all boarded up, a man who suffers from periods where he doesn’t remember what he’s done or what he could have been doing, a man who sees a psychiatrist (whom he refers to as a bug doctor), and who periodically has a young girl staying with him, a young girl who’s not allowed to leave the house or be seen by anyone else, a young girl he refers to as his daughter but who seems not to be. There’s also a cat living in this house who tells her story of the goings on and her connection to the man in question. There seem to be few other people on this street until a woman moves in next door and starts stalking the man, looking for her sister who disappeared years before.
You think you have some idea of what’s going to happen here and who these people are: Ted, the man in the house, is extremely creepy without doing anything overtly terrifying. He comes across as someone who’s probably a serial killer or worse. The girl, Lauren, acts like someone who’s been held captive by a predator for a number of years (she tries to leave messages for outsiders that she’s been kidnapped, or just that she needs help). You think she might be the missing sister who disappeared at the nearby lake years ago, even though there’s a flashback to the time of the disappearance and Ted’s non-involvement in it. The cat doesn’t always act or talk like a cat (she reads the Bible, for instance; even if cats could read, I have a feeling they would find something less judgmental to read), so you’re not sure what she is. And the neighbor, Dee, is totally focused on rescuing her sister from Ted, because she’s convinced he’s the one who abducted Lulu (her sister) in the first place, the district attorney’s assurances to the contrary be damned. She comes across as your classic revenge seeker, the person who’s willing to act outside the law to create justice when the system fails (and there are hints that she already tried to punish someone else for the crime, with dire results).
The atmosphere is extremely nerve-wracking as the different characters tell their stories. The author creates a terrific sense of dread, and brings the horrible milieu to detailed life. There are references to the “gods” Ted has buried out in the woods and how they have to be moved before someone else finds them. There are even creepier references to the Green Boys upstairs, whom we don’t see (this makes them even more unnerving; my imagination was running wild, speculating about what the Green Boys might be). There are references to Ted’s parents, especially his mother, and you can tell from Ted’s memories that there was something definitely wrong with her, though Ted himself refuses to see her as a bad person.
You think you know what’s going on, you wonder about the reality of different things, but the author has a number of surprises up her sleeve. I am not going to give away any of the twists of this book, because I have no intention of spoiling the fun. I’m just going to say that I consider myself reasonably genre-savvy and I was surprised by some of the developments in the book, which, upon consideration, were actually set up cleverly earlier and hidden by the author’s sleight of hand.
It is a horror story, just not the one you thought you were reading. There is violence in it, sometimes pretty gruesome violence (there isn’t sexual violence, for which I was grateful), but most of it is of the psychological type. If you’re steering away from this book because of potential gore, don’t worry. If you’re interested in a good scary read, the kind that keeps you turning the pages in a sense of dreadful fascination, this is an excellent book. Scary reads shouldn’t be restricted to the season of Halloween. Check out The Last House on Needless Street and settle in for a wild, very dark, ride.