As a lonely man who lives alone, I am acutely aware of how some people might suspect the worst of me, and do what I can to not arouse their suspicions, lest they find out what I’m really up to… It also makes me interested in stories about loners and the people who wonder if they’re up to no good, like the main character in Catriona Ward’s Gothic horror thriller The Last House On Needless Street (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Ward talks about what inspired and influenced this scary story, as well as why she thinks I should get a cat.
Photo Credit: Robert Hollingworth
To start, what is The Last House On Needless Street about, and when and where does it take place?
The Last House On Needless Street takes place now. It’s about Ted, a lonely reclusive man who lives in a boarded-up house at the end of Needless Street, on the edge of the great roiling Pacific Northwest forests of Washington State. He lives with his twelve-year-old daughter Lauren, and his disapproving, Bible reading, talking gay cat, Olivia. Children have been going missing in the area for some time — disappearances that have never been solved. A young woman named Dee, whose little sister disappeared at a nearby lake some years ago, has come to believe that Ted is responsible. So she moves into the house next door to him and starts surveillance on him, to try and establish whether he’s culpable — and whether Lauren, Ted’s daughter, is in fact all she seems. But when Lauren herself goes missing, suspicion turns to terror.
Sounds scary. Where did you get the idea for The Last House On Needless Street?
Initially, the novel began as a book about serial killers and their pets. Dennis Nilsen had a dog he loved more than anything else — the dog was the only thing he cared about when he was arrested. Myra Hindley was devastated by the death of her dog Poppet. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that people without empathy can form such strong relationships with their pets, especially when often their violence begins with hurting animals. Domesticity in that context is almost like another form of captivity or coercion — the animal is forced into loving a person who is in fact very dangerous.
But it wasn’t a broad enough canvas — I felt there was a larger story there to be told about survival. I can’t say too much else without spoilers, so I’ll just say, I was researching the effects of trauma when I came across some amazing stories, and I knew straight away I had to write about them.
And is there a reason why there’s a cat who loves reading The Bible as opposed to a dog who loves to cook or a fish who loves to play Fortnite?
Yes of course! Cats are self-sufficient, but they also don’t need to go places. Dogs need to be walked, and I wanted Olivia’s world to be just the inside of the house. Also, I felt her slightly acerbic perspective and tone was a welcome relief to some of the darkness in the book. I came to need her, while writing it — she was a respite. Strangely she came to perform the same function for me as she does for Ted in the book — and as I suspect she does for the reader — she’s a source of sanity and comfort.
Clearly, The Last House On Needless Street is scary story. But aside from “horror” and maybe “thriller,” are there any other genres at work in this story?
I love the Gothic — it’s where I cut my writers’ teeth. I think though it’s a modern day Gothic, The Last House On Needless Street uses those same tools and strategies, too, but in a different way. Captivity and wilderness, domesticity and savagery, the lit window in the dark forest… I think that form has a lot to say about gender and power. Also in creating Olivia’s voice, I turned to the comic essayists I love, like David Sedaris. Also, there’s a touch of Kelly Link in the magical realism of it all.
The Last House On Needless Street is your third novel after The Girl From Rawblood and Little Eve. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Needless Street but not on anything else you’ve written?
One of the greatest challenges I faced while planning and researching the book was how to write the unwritable, the unthinkable — how to render actions and motivations that horrified me, on the page. It was Zombie, Joyce Carol Oates’s dark tunnel of a book, which showed me the way forward. No one understands gothic horror like Joyce Carol Oates, and Zombie is a difficult reading experience. The novel follows Quentin P, a young serial killer who abducts young men and tortures them with an ice pick, trying to create the titular zombie — so that they will never leave him. It’s a surprisingly common motivation for serial killers. Dennis Nilsen was famously said to be “killing for company,” and Jeffrey Dahmer, the inspiration for Quentin P, wanted to make his victims into zombies so they’d never leave him. Zombie works as straight horror, as well as social commentary, showing affluent America literally consuming young black men.
The other book that shaped Needless Street was I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara. True crime is another obsession of mine, and this is the gold standard. From Gillian Flynn’s pitch perfect introduction to the lyrical writing and huge compassion that radiates from the page, the meticulous research, to the tragic story that lies behind it, everything about this book draws you in. It tells the story of the Golden State Killer, who terrorized Southern California for decades, escalating from burglary to rape and murder — the details are monstrous and abhorrent. His career lasted so long that these crimes were thought to be by at least three different perpetrators. Recently new DNA evidence led the police to an arrest. But it was McNamara’s book that reignited official interest in the crimes, and her relentless collation and unearthing of evidence built the case. She died before publication leaving her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, and others to fill in the gaps left in the manuscript. Living inside the horror of these crimes for years, Oswalt has suggested, drove McNamara to her limits, and ultimately led to her death — making her, perhaps, the Golden State Killer’s last victim.
The book is just so good at taking facts and figures and making them human. It brings the crimes to life along with their effect on communities. it lends empathy to the statistics and makes you really feel the victims’ suffering and fear.
How about non-literary influences; was The Last House On Needless Street influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I loved Mindhunter. I thought it dealt with our compulsive need to understand these crimes in a really interesting way. I also thought the way it drew parallels between the perpetrators and the investigators was very astute. But everything I read or watch is part of the vast tapestry of writing, somehow, even if it doesn’t make it into the text.
Scary stories are sometimes stand-alone tales and sometimes the start of something larger. What is The Last House On Needless Street?
I don’t know how I could do a follow up to Needless Street. I suspect the tale has been told. I’d love to do a series, at some point, but the right idea hasn’t quite emerged yet. I tend to write books that are self-contained. The story begins and ends within the novel’s confines.
Now, along with The Last House On Needless Street, you have two other books just out or about to be out. Let’s start with the former: Little Eve, which originally came out in 2018 but was reissued earlier this year. What is that book about, and when and where does it take place?
Little Eve is about a young woman, Evelyn, who may or may not have murdered her adoptive family in a snake worshipping cult, in a stone circle on a Scottish island, on New Year’s Eve, 1920. The novel moves between the one survivor, Dinah, and Eve’s narrative in the run-up to the massacre. And the reader comes to understand that only one of them, or perhaps neither of them, can be telling the truth. It’s a hymn to my love for golden age detective stories, and I love my detective, Christopher Black. If there were ever a character I could see reviving, it would be him.
And then there’s your upcoming novel, Sundial, which will be out March 1st of next year. What is that book about, and when and where does it take place?
Sundial is set in the Mojave desert. A traumatic event forces Rob to take her twelve-year-old daughter Callie on a bonding trip to her old childhood home in the California desert: Sundial. Rob and Callie’s relationship is badly fractured. Mother and daughter mistrust one another and each suspects that the other wants to harm her — possibly even plots her death.
Rob’s parents were scientists who carried out dubious experiments at Sundial during her childhood – and she realizes that this past might have implications for Callie’s future.
I’ve always been fascinated by the MKUltra experiments carried out by the CIA in the ’60s and ’70s. And I came across some very strange, more recent CIA experiments that have recently been declassified — all much weirder than anything I could make up. As soon as I read about them, I knew I had to use them in a book.
Sundial is very different to Needless Street, but it has a lot in common with it, too — it’s about the themes that I seem to return to in all my books — family, survival and the complex bonds of love.
Going back to The Last House On Needless Street, you mentioned that it had been influenced by Manhunter. But this story will have an opportunity to repay that favor because it’s being made into a movie by Andy Serkis and his production company, The Imaginarium. Aside from what I just said, is there anything else you can tell us? Like, is there a director attached, any casting news…
Nothing I can share just yet! But the moment there’s news I can talk about you can bet I won’t be able to keep quiet about it.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Last House On Needless Street, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
Sundial! It’s contemporary, and though different, I hope it’s got the same sensibility as Needless Street. Also, it’s my most recent, the one that most closely resembles who I am today. Books are kind of like a snapshot of the writers’ mind at the time. Sundial is closest to where my thoughts and feelings are right this second. I’m cautiously very proud of it.