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.”