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The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona WardUK edition2 stars

[Spoilers herein.]

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsCatriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street arrived in 2021 riding a wave of pre-release hype the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen since Justin Cronin released The Passage ten years ago. It’s the tragic and often heart-wrenching story of a man living with a profound mental illness, and how this illness forces him to navigate his life. This isn’t a spoiler. It’s evident from the opening chapter that something is very very wrong with Ted Bannerman, who lives in a decrepit old house with all of its windows boarded up, on a cul-de-sac bordering a forest and nearby lake. His only companion is a cat named Olivia, who has her own chapters in which she is the first-person viewpoint narrator, suggesting that Olivia is either a very special cat indeed or maybe not a cat at all. Ted also has a daughter, a little girl named Lauren, who shows up at odd times for a visit before she has to “go away.” Are you starting to get the picture yet?

I won’t drop a massive spoiler and say what Ted’s condition is, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out unless you yourself have been living in a boarded-up house all your life. It doesn’t help that Ward has a tendency to be very ham-fisted with her symbolism. When Olivia talks about how much she hates the creepy Russian nesting dolls that sit on the mantlepiece, it’s almost like a Symbolism Siren goes off. And for any reader who still might be slow on the uptake, later on in the book Ward actually has her characters straight up tell us, “Gosh, we’re just like those Russian nesting dolls!

It’s a form of mental illness that is still not well understood, but has been featured so often as a device in horror stories and thrillers that it’s more or less become cliche. To her infinite credit, Catriona Ward has taken seriously her responsibility to do justice to a condition that is suffered by a great many deeply traumatized people and present it in a way that is compassionate and, despite the horrors that unfold in the story, hopeful. Her research took two years, she interviewed people living with the condition, and the back of the book includes a bibliography listing 38 sources. If The Last House succeeds at anything, it’s in Ward’s deep empathy for her subject. This is a book that’s oppressive and disturbing, sometimes nearly overwhelming in its sadness, but one that comes from a place of real humanity and caring.

If good intentions made for great novels, I’d be only too happy to join the chorus of praise. But I’m sorry to say that as a story, The Last House didn’t work for me more than it did. There are too many plot contrivances that ask us to be extremely generous with our willing suspension of disbelief, too many supporting characters who seem like exaggerated and even cartoonish caricatures. Moreover, it becomes evident as you read that Ward does not establish anything at all in her story that she doesn’t plan to completely overturn with an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist. Even her plot twists have plot twists. Once you realize misdirection is the entire goal here, it’s no longer misdirection, it’s just a book believing that it’s smarter than its readers. And some of the big surprises aren’t all that surprising.

Ted doesn’t seem to have much of a daily routine in his life. He doesn’t work and it isn’t clear what he does for money, though it’s mentioned that he has pawned off a lot of old family possessions. He’s not a complete shut-in. He does go out, though these excursions usually result in awkward and unpleasant encounters, to put it mildly. Ted knows he isn’t well, and he sees a therapist he calls the “bug man,” but the guy is just a quack who only cares about the book he claims to be writing. Ted doesn’t mind because the guy gives him free meds. He doesn’t have too many opportunities to be social, but he has learned to adapt to certain social cues. When he’s at home, he enjoys watching monster truck shows, looking after Olivia, and he eagerly anticipates visits from Lauren (whom Olivia hates), even though she tends to misbehave very badly before she “goes away.” Ted also mentions that sometimes he “goes away,” and he’s not sure what happens when he does. But there is an area in the forest he considers sacred and inhabited by gods. He knows this, because he buried them there himself.

About a decade before the story opens, Ted was a person of interest in the disappearance of a four-year-old girl named Lulu, who was visiting the nearby lake with her parents and big sister Dee. Naturally we are encouraged to scratch our chins and think “Hmm, Lulu… Lauren… is there a connection?”

This is where the story begins to go wrong. Lulu’s guilt-ridden older sister Dee has been on a mission to find the little girl’s killer. Frustrated with the lack of results from the police, she has zeroed in on Ted as the prime suspect. At this point, Ward asks us to believe a chain of events that are frankly incredible. Ask yourself: if you, as a young woman all alone, were convinced that a specific man was responsible for the abduction and murder of your sibling, would you move into the house next door to him? Would you walk over to his house, all by yourself, knock on the front door, make friendly conversation? Would you look for excuses to extend your solitary visit with this possible pervert child murderer in his own house by asking things like “Can I use the bathroom?” and “Could I have a drink of water?” Would you spy on his movements and follow him, all by yourself, when you see him walking into the forest at night with a shovel?

Catriona Ward expects us to swallow all of this with complete credulity. But remember, everything in this book is setup for a shocking twist. So, sure enough, we learn that Dee has — shall we say — some sordid history of her own. And it’s here that Ward just stops playing fair with her readers. Look, misdirection is fantastic. It is central to the appeal of a mystery, being led down blind alleys in the hope that you’re a clever enough detective to piece together the puzzle. But the way you know misdirection and especially plot twists have been done correctly is if you as the reader can reverse-engineer the story, looking back at earlier sections to discover, yes, there were the clues along, there was always enough information in the narrative for me to have solved this if I had been observant enough.

In this novel, Ward is either so clumsy that all of her intended mysteries are obvious from the get-go, or, as in the case with Dee’s character, she doesn’t misdirect the audience, she simply misleads them. Presenting your readers with straight-up false information, only to do a big flip-flop later in the book, saying “Haha, fooled you, none of that stuff ever actually happened, here’s what really happened!” feels less like good storytelling and more like story-trolling.

Finally, this review will not be complete without some mention of the character of Ted’s late mother. Mothers, either of the abusive or excessively smothering variety, who have left their adult children with a boatload of devastating mental health problems have become one of horror fiction’s most recycled tropes. They can all no doubt be traced back to the real-life mother of the notorious serial killer Ed Gein, a woman who created such a toxic hellhole of a home life that it would have been a miracle for her son not to have grown up to become the inspiration for Norman Bates and Leatherface. But I think Ward could have given poor Ted a mother who fit that trope, if that’s the trope she really needed to utilize, without going overboard into making the woman into some kind of Resident Evil villain performing devilish medical experiments on missing children. Honestly, by the time the story reaches these revelations, we’re so far away from relatable reality that it’s practically parody.

I can understand why so many readers are praising this book to the skies. If you read it for its mood, for its sense of dread, if you enjoy being surprised and you don’t care to think too closely about the choices the writer is making and why they’re making them, then yes, The Last House on Needless Street is a novel that can have a profound emotional impact. The very subject matter of parental abuse and the destructive traumas that children of abusers can carry into adulthood is alone enough to be triggering to a great many readers. And, read at a superficial level, this novel brings us to the brink of despair and back to the promise of hope quite effectively. I just don’t think that such emotional impact requires abandoning good storytelling logic and realistic characters. This House may look good on the outside, but inside, it’s a real fixer-upper.