The Last House on Needless Street
An unsettling piece of dark fiction as well as a memorable read for fans of horror fiction.
When I read, during the course of the previous year, Silje Ulstein's much-hyped Reptile Memoirs, I thought that the Norwegian author was the first one to grant narrative voice to a non-human entity, in her case a lengthy python that became one of the many narrators of the story, as a means of expanding the potential and scope of her storytelling practice. Eventually however, it was the Washington-born horror/thriller writer Catriona Ward who first introduced an animal as a prime narrator in her 2021 multi-genre novel The Last House on Needless Street. Ward adopted a multiple perspective narrative plan in her writing and we watch as the story unfolds through the eyes of all the protagonists, Ted, Dee, and Olivia, a cat who is the very definition of a domestic pet as she is never allowed to leave the apartment in which she lives alongside Ted and his daughter, teenage Lauren. Olivia's humanized, anthropomorphic character is plausible as well as playful at times while her positioning within the overall narrative is indicative of the author's impeccable skills in characterization even if are ostensibly lacking the essential traits that define humans such as the power of reason and the ability to speak their thoughts in a comprehensible manner. Olivia's thought process as it appears on page enrichens the novel's plot and adds another layer to the, already complex, story that is loaded with twists and revelations which are conveyed at a measured pacing, never letting the reader believe that he is on top of what is happening in respect to the main narrative thread permeating the totality of the book.
The story is centered around the enigmatic, obscure persona of Ted Bannerman, a man in his thirties living at the end of a cul-de-sac, the titular "Needless Street". Ted lives along with hishis cat, Olivia, who is bound with her master through an invisible cord as she vividly describes herself at one point: "That is when it happened. A soft white glow gathered on his chest, over the place where his heart must be. The glow became a cord, reaching out through the air. The cord approached me. I rowed and struggled. But I was held fast. I felt the light encircle my neck, link me to his heart. It didn’t hurt. It bound us together". Ted's teenage daughter, Lauren, visits him only at weekends for reasons that remain remain unspecified to the reader, at least in the course of the novel's first half. The inextricable link connecting Ted and Olivia constitutes a critical plot point and it is critical to be grasped in order for the reader to find the key which unlocks the mystery lying at the heart of the novel. Ted is a clearly troubled individual as mental illness has been running through his family for many generations. The exact nature of his condition, however, eludes us as the author's character outlining as far as Ted is concerned is not founded on a bone-dry psychiatric assessment and subsequent diagnosis, with his -majorly disturbed- personality being manifested through his disjointed thought process and abhorrent actions.
Ted's monotonous quotidian existence will be disrupted when a young woman, Dee, moves in the neighboring house and begins prying on his personal business more than he would like. Dee is a key player in the story as 11 years earlier her sister, Lulu, disappeared from the face of the earth while being with her family at the lake, close to her new residence. Dee has been obsessed with finding her sister and since Lulu's vanishing, she has been desperately trying to find some clues that would lead her to the right direction. Ted has always been one of the prime suspects in Dee's mind and her moving right beside him is a part of a greater plan to spy on her new neighbor and determine once and for all if her suspicions are valid or not. Dee's character enters the narrative last in chronological order, though her contribution to the story's development as well as to its final conclusion is decisive. Through both Ted and Dee's parts, the reader becomes privy to important moments of their past, especially their childhood, something that finally leads to a paradox: we begin to feel sympathetic not only towards Dee, who is the "good" character in the story, but also towards Ted, despite his erratic and vicious acts which are fully brought to light in all their loathsome splendor at the beginning of the novel's final part.
Apart from a morbid tale expertly told, The Last House on Needless Street is also a study on the -overused in crime/mystery fiction- unreliable narrator trope as what begins as a rather straightforward story, progressively becomes a labyrinthine narrative where nothing can be taken for granted as Ward is quick to put the reader in doubt of the validity of the information divulged to him. While this is a novel that the majority of the critics would classify as belonging to the horror fiction genre, the truth is that the story weaved by Ward is as multi-dimensional and genre-transcending as it could be. The author's insidious tone combined with the disturbing, unsettling mood that is omnipresent throughout the novel, make for a reading experience brimming with gloomy undertones and a sense of foreboding heralding the worst of fate for the protagonists. It should be noted that the unequivocal guru of horror and master of the macabre, Stephen King, hailed Ward's novel as the most exciting read he has relished since Gillian Flynn's immensely popular Gone Girl, a true "nerve-shredder" as he underlines when asked about C. Ward's book.
Moreover, Imaginarium Productions, founded by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish, has optioned film rights to Ward's novel and the prospective film is currently in production. Serkis praised The Last House on Needless Street as "the kind of book you come across once in a lifetime", thus manifesting his enthusiasm over the new project in the clearest of words. It would be interesting to watch a film adaptation as the art of cinema allows the creator to interpret a text's atmosphere into the visual language, with the cinematography providing him ample opportunity to ascribe certain qualities that convey the original source's essence in a loyal, yet autonomous, manner. This is a book that will appeal to all lovers of good fiction, regardless of the particular genre they favor, as it contains distinctive characterization, high-caliber tension, and twists that pull the rug from under our feet in a ghoulish rollercoaster sprinkled with bits of melancholy, especially in the parts where Ted and Dee talk about their past. Read it at the first chance you get.
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