Horror has a tell-tale heart. The device of the unreliable narrator is a genre staple. With The Last House on Needless Street, author Catriona Ward ups the ante. If one unreliable narrator perturbs, think what literary mayhem several can create. The book’s multiple narrators have personalities that alarm the reader. It’s clear from the outset that none of them are too tightly wrapped. And what is one to make of Olivia, a talking cat whose point of view could jokingly be labeled “purr-sonification?” Reviewing Ward’s quite audacious novel is a difficult task. The potential for spoilers is akin to walking a field of landmines. Suffice to say, the plot defies expectations. Whenever a self-satisfied “aha moment” occurs, it gets obliterated to smithereens.
The narrative revolves around Ted Bannerman, a reclusive heavy-drinking outsider who grapples with reality. He shares his abode with feline Olivia and Lauren, a rebellious adolescent who he thinks of as his daughter. At times Ted resents the demands of dealing with a pet and kid: “I’m only one person and it’s not enough.” Ted also has memory issues that lead to distortions of when and where things occurred. The temporal tempest makes time perpetually out of joint. Family flit in and out of his thoughts with his mother commanding a prominent position in his head. In moments of clarity, he understands elements of her: “I understood then that there was another, shadowy her, made of the past—like a ghost and a living person bound together.”
Aside from those who reside with Ted, there’s a young woman who views him as a person of interest. Dee believes Ted was involved in the disappearance of her young sister Lulu. Although the unresolved event happened eleven years ago, when Dee was in her teens, she is determined to right the wrong. At any cost. After Lulu went missing Dee’s life became unhinged. When her nagging of law enforcement officers to keep pursuing the case proves futile, Dee takes matters into her own hands. She rents a home next to Ted’s. The pervasive tension she feels is on a par with his innate stress levels. Like Ted, she decompresses through escapism: “She reads Wuthering Heights. She is only a couple of pages from the end. When she finishes, she opens the book at random in the middle and continues reading. Dee only ever reads this one book. She likes to read, but you never know what books are going to do to you and she can’t afford to be taken off guard.” Indeed, we don’t know what books are going to do to us. I felt that profoundly after reading Nightfire’s The Last House on Needless Street. The conclusion of the novel left me with an array of thoughts and emotions. I was surprised how well poignancy is integrated with the story’s fever dream quality, and I was miffed at myself for being thwarted regarding certain assumptions I’d made. It grated on me that I’d followed the established genre breadcrumbs and was led down another path. In lesser hands the convoluted tale would have been a hot mess. But Catriona Ward pulls it off with panache, synchronizing the reader’s heartbeat with that of the narrative’s tell-tale heart.