When Dee walks through the front door in Catriona Ward’s recent thriller The Last House on Needless Street, readers of gothic fiction find themselves in a familiar place. The house is “an underworld; a deep cave where lonely rays of light fall on strange mounds, irregular and broken things. There’s plywood nailed to all the windows,” and “the whole place smells like death; not of rot or blood but of dry bone and dust; like an old tomb, long forgotten.”
Dee is investigating the disappearance of her younger sister Lulu 11 years earlier, and the trail has led her to Ted Bannerman, a lonely stranger who lives on the edge of the woods with his cat Olivia and occasionally daughter Lauren. Lurking next door, Dee hears scratching and digging through the walls; she late at night she sees a face at her window, “eyes that shine like lamps, full of the light of death”; her neighbor’s creepy undergrowth seems to writhe with snakes: “she sees them everywhere, their shadowy coils.” But are these visions real or the product of Dee’s disturbed mind, and what exactly are the horrors lurking in Ted’s house?
Ward is one of several novelists exploring new territory in gothic fiction, though the haunted house has long been a source of both fascination and fear. From Henry James’s governess in The Turn of the Screw (1898) to Shirley Jackson’s shy Eleanor Vance in her 1959 classic The Haunting of Hill House, recently adapted for Netflix, these stories have often depended on unreliable narrators, usually women, whose psychological problems and struggles with loneliness color their perceptions of the danger around them. Stephen King highlighted these works as “the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years”, but it was his son, fellow horror novelist Joe Hill, who pointed out why: because “the houses are not haunted” . – people are”.
Hill House seems to Eleanor “vile”, “sick”; guests gathered to witness the supernatural powers of the old mansion are tormented by nightly hammering, deadly laughter, and wild laughter in the halls. However, when Eleanor’s name appears on the walls, a chilling device echoed in Sarah Waters’ 2009 gothic novel The Little Stranger, Eleanor is accused of writing it herself. Increasingly, readers, and even Eleanor herself, are beginning to wonder how much of the action is taking place “both inside her head and out in the hallway.” As in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 novel The Yellow Wallpaper, whose narrator is confined to a single room with walls that seem to move, twist, and come to life at night, Eleanor’s state of mind is intertwined with that of the house, until he feels that “whatever he wants from me he can have it”.
Gilman’s narrator has what we would now call postpartum depression, and her doctor husband prescribes bed rest and no stimulation, which means she must not read or write, and spends hours staring at the peeling wallpaper of the old nursery. until he is convinced that he is possessed. :: “And worst of all, in the light of the moon, it turns into bars! I mean the exterior pattern, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. Imprisoned in the domestic realm, as Eleanor has been while she cared for her elderly mother, it is not surprising that these female leads see danger in the buildings around them. As Erin Kelly, author of the recent gothic thriller The Skeleton Key, puts it, “Natural reactions to coercive or abusive behavior can easily be dismissed as ‘crazy.’ And the home has traditionally been a place, often the only place, of female agency.
In my novel, The People Before, gallery fundraiser Jess finds herself holed up in a dilapidated old house when she quits her job and moves her young family to the Suffolk countryside. Cut off from former colleagues and friends, and cut off from neighbors who are suspicious of the London family that has taken over this notorious local estate, Ella Jess feels nervous, watched; at night, she’s convinced a stranger lurks, just out of sight. Are these premonitions, or is her mind playing tricks on her? In The Skeleton Key, Nell is convinced that her return to her family home in London, to celebrate the anniversary of her father’s legendary treasure-hunting book, is fraught with danger. The house holds secrets, and the novel’s tension is whether Nell will discover the true source of it in time.
Houses have played a central role in many recent thrillers, to the point that a new genre of domestic film noir has emerged in the last decade, as writers explore fears around homeownership, breakup family and marital discord. Louise Candlish’s recently televised 2018 novel Our House asked readers to put themselves in a nightmarish situation: returning from a trip only to discover strangers moving into their beloved family home. Meanwhile, last year’s Abigail Dean thriller Girl A raised darker questions about how a house can contain the legacy of childhood trauma.
With echoes of Lisa Jewell’s 2019 hit The Family Upstairs, Dean’s novel explores what happens to a group of siblings on the run from their abusive parents and their upbringing in a “house of horrors.” In both novels, the childhood home functions as a lasting reminder of mental and physical pain. Dean’s protagonist, Lexie, must decide what to do with the house on the moors bequeathed to her and her brothers. The horror is all too real, and yet Lexie’s quest to come to terms with the early life she’s spent years trying to escape is haunted by ghosts from her past.
Ward’s protagonist is equally haunted by memories of the day her sister disappeared, and as the author takes us through the stories of Dee and her neighbor Ted, we discover that the real horror is not found in the creepy house of the ward. Needless Street, but within the psyche of its inhabitants. The supernatural takes a backseat to the psychological, and by the time the major twists are revealed, the reader might be more concerned with things that strike at the mind.
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