The Last House on Needless Street

Written by Catriona Ward

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Last House on Needless Street
RRP: £12.99
Released: March 18 2021

Four voices tell this story, revealing much but not all of the past as they try to interpret the current action. The revelations are fascinating: horror hinted at, suggestive, even lewd.  Any or all of these characters could be either criminals or sinners but if there is a killer among them, this is one who demands all our sympathy.

Clarity is elusive. You think you know where you are – and there is a twist and you’re lost again. The story starts with Ted, obviously adult but badly damaged, living in a boarded-up house, haunted by memories of a little girl who disappeared eleven years ago, dominated by the shade of his mother, communicating with no one other than Olivia, his cat.

So, Ted is mad as depicted: abusive upbringing, rumours of other disappeared children, his neighbours portrayed as vengeful zombies…. you can see where this is going.  

But Olivia takes up the story, Olivia the cat. She is articulate, percipient and although prim - deploring Ted’s personal habits (dirty, living on bourbon and junk food) - she accepts him for what he is and what he is to her. The bond between them is close and if ever she questions it, she consults the bible. Her god is “the Lord” but as time (and the action) goes on she becomes uncertain about His identity confusing Him with another cat, not the evil neighbourhood tabby nor the beautiful but unresponsive matron whom she craves for a friend but with a large and comforting black male she refers to as Night Time.

Confusion intensifies until a woman moves into the house next door and a plot starts to materialise. This is Dee, older sister of the child who vanished eleven years ago. For over a decade she has been searching for the girl or for her body, at the least for an explanation of how the child could have disappeared without a trace. No suspects had been found; Ted’s name had come up, to be quickly dropped by both the police and the media. Only Dee, driven by a sense of guilt and following her own investigations, has homed in on him, following clues to his home on Needless Street. Her growing conviction of his involvement is supported by circumstances: his living in a locked and shuttered house with a daughter, Lauren, whom no one has ever seen.

Now Lauren herself intrudes, and vociferously, confounding the reader. She is uncontrollable: needy and domineering, spiteful, vicious. She hates Olivia and attacks Ted, drawing blood. He suspects that it was she who killed all his beloved garden birds, trapping them at the feeders with sticky tape.

With Lauren’s appearance horrors multiply – both in memories and in the present. Shadows take on substance. A presence in the attics  might be explained by Ted’s grudging acceptance that real squirrels are sharing roof space with ghosts but worse, he is devastated by the proposal to build a car park in the forest at the precise point where he has buried his gods – under the leaf mould, guarded by rattlesnakes. The situation is unendurable and in a chaos of clamour and violence the world disintegrates to a neat and terrible finale.

Hyped as horror by the media, disguised as such by the author, this one is everything they say: appalling yes, with the most heinous of villains, but at the same time, beautiful, and so sad you weep for the innocents. And when you come up for air it’s to wonder at a story so absorbing that you lost sight of the fact that it had to be and is superlatively written.

Flawless and too good for comfort.

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