Creepy Cats in Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

Creepy Cats in Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street

Since Tor announced its new imprint dedicated to horror Nightfire in 2019, I’ve been anxiously awaiting its first books, wondering what to expect. It’s been a long time coming, but reading one of their first offerings, Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, has been a highlight of my horror year so far, and I’m looking forward to reading more books from the line. I especially like the feminist bent that Ward’s storytelling takes and her knowledge of what makes horror appealing to a female audience. “There’s a tricksy sense of empowerment, particularly from the ghost story,” she’s told The Guardian. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t felt a bit like a ghost in a meeting, so you can see the appeal. And just being a woman has an element of body horror to it. Childbirth? That’s some horror right there.”

Ward uses multiple points of view to tell a murky, layered story that takes place on the East Coast in a small town near a destination lake and a gothic forest as bleak as any to be found in fairy tales. There’s Ted, a damaged man with questionable tastes in food, who’s become the scourge of his neighborhood after being accused in a child’s disappearance years ago. He has a young daughter Lauren who he sees part-time, and the teenager appears to have some developmental issues. Ted lives on Needless Street, and soon a new neighbor moves in next to him, spying on him and tracking his whereabouts. This is Dee, older sister of Lulu, who was one of the missing girls at the lake years ago. Dee’s determined to find out what happened to her sister years ago no matter what, and her journeys have led her to Needless Street. There are a few appearances from the Bug Man, what Ted calls his shifty psychiatrist who likes to talk about his magnum opus that he plans on publishing soon. And then there’s my personal favorite character, Olivia the cat who describes the many different types of naps she takes and has a faith in God that would rival a human’s. She also harbors a feral huntress side to her that she calls Nighttime, who only comes out when she’s truly hungry or angry.

Ted has set up barricades around his house with teeny-tiny peepholes to protect himself and his property from all the people who want to do him harm, and Olivia watches out of them during certain times of the day when she spies a stray tabby who she loves with all her heart. For me, these are the most heartbreaking moments of the story.

“Her scent precedes her, falls through the air like honey dripping onto toast. She comes around the corner with her graceful stride. How can I describe her? She’s striped like a little dusty tiger. Her yellow eyes are the same color as ripe gold apple skin, or pee. They’re beautiful, is what I mean. She is beautiful. She stops and stretches, this way and that, extends her long black claws. She blinks as snowflakes come to rest on her nose. She has something silver sticking out of her mouth, a tail, maybe. A small fish like a sardine or an anchovy.”

The Last House on Needless Street

The Last House on Needless Street is quite unlike any horror novel I’ve read before. The story’s dreamy but also terrifying. I love the homage paid to a person’s pets; no matter how creepy their personality might be, they too love someone or something. Also, the shifting setting kept me feeling off-kilter and claustrophobic. A large part of the story is spent inside that house on Needless Street with three floors. There’s an attic at the top, which all occupants of the house avoid, except Nighttime, because of the creepy green children who live there. There’s an ever-watchful portrait of Ted’s mother, a former nurse, and his father, a drunk who abandoned the family years ago. And next to that portrait stands a set of Russian dolls that keep reappearing in different configurations as the story progresses. This claustrophobia appears to be a desired effect, though, as Ward classifies this novel compared to others she’s written: “Needless Street, I think, was more about containment.”


Last year in my vampire literature class we started with the origin of the vampire story, which begins with a fragment by Lord Byron, whose story was later taken over by John Polidori and published in 1819. These vampire stories all come from a rainy weekend in Geneva in 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont were all cooped up, reading gothic horror stories to one another. Lord Byron proposed that they each write a horror story that weekend, and one of the theories for this is that he wanted there to be a duel of the poets.

Percy Shelley wasn’t interested and abandoned the project, but Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori went at it. The most famous work to come out of this weekend was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lord Byron began a tale (and most likely told the rest of it to his peers) about the vampire as the noble cosmopolitan we are now familiar with, and John Polidori told a perfectly awful tale, according to Mary Shelley, about a scary woman who had a skull for a head.

John Polidori was a physician employed by Lord Byron to travel with him, and they argued often during their summer travels, until Polidori was dismissed by Lord Byron. A few years later, Polidori adapted Lord Byron’s fragment and published it as his own story called “The Vampyre.” A few years after that, Polidori committed suicide.

Ken Russell’s Gothic attempts to dramatize this evening in Geneva, which has all the makings of a great story, and the movie starts out well. The Shelleys arrive with the Byron-infatuated stepsister in tow, and we get a strong sense of Lord Byron (played by Gabriel Byrne) as manipulator and hedonist. All of Lord Byron’s scandals are touched on within the first twenty minutes of the movie: his homosexuality, his rumored incest with his sister, and his womanizing ways. We also see his gift with words; parts of the actual fragment he wrote are quoted in the dinner scene.

Timothy Spall as John Polidori is effective at portraying the corrosive relationship between the doctor and Byron, playing the man as a foolish Polonius so bedazzled by his employer that he becomes crushed when he’s not recognized as a fellow genius. Based on Spall’s performance, it’s easy to see how Polidori went on to betray Byron by taking over his work, then entered the ministry, and then committed suicide.

Those are the only good things about this movie really. After the five indulge in laudanum and perform a little spell, the movie turns into a mishmash of drug-fueled nightmares, with the emphasis on drugs. Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley is the moral center of this movie, if there could be such a thing, but we never get a clear picture of what inspired Byron’s vampire tale or her Frankenstein. Instead, there’s lots of couplings with almost every combination imaginable and an “it was all a dream” epilogue to the movie with historical facts tacked on in scrolling text at the end.

The absolute rock bottom is Myriam Cyr as Claire Clairmont, naked and smeared with mud as she swings to and fro on an iron gate crazed out of her mind. I feel sorry for the actress having to do such a scene, and it’s easy to see why she didn’t get much work after Gothic. The movie mostly plays as a commercial for why not to do drugs. No genius here.