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Gothic novel will bring author out of shadows

Kate Griffin talks to Catriona Ward, whose latest chiller has drawn praise from Stephen King and is destined to bring her into the mainstream

01 April, 2021 — By Kate Griffin

Catriona Ward – ‘For me, the Gothic deals with secrets, families, what we inherit from one another’

THE most important thing to say about Catriona Ward’s astonishing Gothic novel is… well, nothing.

To write in any detail about the haunting (and haunted) characters and the matryoshka doll plotting of The Last House on Needless Street would come perilously close to divulging the most devastating secrets of a book that takes the gothic tradition and moulds it into something wonderful and new.

As the author of two award-winning Gothic novels, Little Eve and Rawblood, Little Venice-based Catriona is already an adept in the liminal world of secrets and menace, but Needless – currently climbing the Times’ bestsellers list – is her breakout, destined to bring her into the mainstream.

Asked why she thinks why that might be, she replies: “I had a mad idea I was desperate to write, and I had no idea whether it would work or not. Maybe it only worked because I threw caution to the winds? I pushed myself personally, emotionally and technically.

“I think although it’s about a strange story, it has elements in it everyone can relate to. How we process the past, the stories we tell ourselves to get through life, kindness in the face of suffering.”

The barest bones are deceptively simple. Reclusive Ted Bannerman lives in a dilapidated, boarded-up house on a dead-end street situated at the fringe of the wild Washington woods of the American Northwest. His strange lonely life is dominated by peculiar routines and obsessions. Occasionally he is visited by his daughter Lauren, but his daily companion is his cat, Olivia.

Eleven years earlier, Ted was questioned by the police after the disappearance of a little girl, Lulu, at a local lakeside beauty spot. He was cleared of any involvement but now Lulu’s troubled sister Dee has taken up residence in Needless Street. Fixated on Ted’s guilt, she is determined to seek out the truth.

So far, so Gothic. All the usual suspects – the old dark house, long-buried skeletons and enigmatic players – are in place.

“For me, the Gothic deals with secrets, families, what we inherit from one another,” Catriona explains. “It also forges a strong relationship with houses and buildings – as metaphors for family and lineage. It’s obsessed with borders between the land and the living space, captivity and freedom, the wild and the domestic.”

In Needless she knowingly and skilfully weaves these themes together, adding an informed psychological perspective that raises the novel above the tropes. Ted and Dee are damaged people. The past has hurt them both in more ways than are immediately apparent and gradually we understand that nothing is quite as it seems.

Take Olivia, for instance.

Ted’s Bible-loving pet is one of the book’s narrators – a Cheshire Cat plunging the reader into an anti-Wonderland where everything and nothing makes sense. Olivia speaks in a gloriously arch voice that, for this reader, brought to mind the violin pitch and swooping enunciation of Truman Capote.

Perhaps this is deliberate? Although entirely a thing of its own, The Last House on Needless Street has something of the great American classic To Kill a Mockingbird in its gentle portrayal of otherness. Capote was Harper Lee’s closest childhood friend and the two books certainly share a deep empathy for the outsider; Ted Bannerman and Lee’s Boo Radley occupy a similar space as the focus of fear and suspicion.

But where Mockingbird is Southern Gothic, Needless is its northern counterpart, offering a coolly menacing landscape of dappled forests, ritual stones and the flitting ghosts of those who have passed that way. This is a terrain sewn with horrific family secrets.

“I think To Kill A Mockingbird is definitely there as an influence,” admits Catriona.

“But those forests and the Pacific Northwest lend themselves so readily to the Gothic. It’s been the setting for many dark deeds, including the haunt of several serial killers. It’s land that can swallow you whole, never to be seen again, and that’s what I needed for this story.”

It’s a place she’s familiar with. Although Catriona walks the tree-lined canals of her London home patch on days when writing doesn’t flow, she draws inspiration from her past. Born in Washington DC, she spent most of her childhood travelling. Her father was a water economist for the World Bank and the family spent stretches of time in the US, as well as Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen and Morocco, returning for a couple of weeks each year to an ancient house on Dartmoor, where Rawblood is set.

Like many children of peripatetic parents, Catriona and her younger sister became voracious readers, with literature a constant in a changing world. She studied English at Oxford and today she feels both British and American, explaining: “I’ve come to know this country more slowly, as an adult. More of my childhood memories are American.”

It’s not surprising that US horror master Stephen King has said of The Last House on Needless Street: “I haven’t read anything this exciting since Gone Girl.”

The book has already been snapped up by Andy Serkis as a potential film project for his Imaginarium Productions. It will be fascinating to see how he’ll manage to translate this chilling, complex and ultimately moving story to the screen without shattering its beautiful riddle, although as the Cheshire Cat – rather pertinently – says: “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”

  • The Last House on Needless Street. By Catriona Ward, Viper Books, £12.99

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