Catriona Ward‘s The Last House on Needless Street is one of the most anticipated books of the year, with Stephen King himself singing its praises. King said of the gothic tale: “The buzz building around Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is real. I’ve read it and was blown away. It’s a true nerve-shredder that keeps its mind-blowing secrets to the very end. Haven’t read anything this exciting since Gone Girl.”
Marketed as a cross between Gone Girl and The Haunting of Hill House, the psychological horror tells the tale of “a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods [where] lives a family of three” from multiple, distinct perspectives (including a cat’s!). We have an exclusive first look at the gorgeous cover for The Last House on Needless Street (designed by Katie Klimowicz, and executed by artist Corey Brickley), as well as an exclusive excerpt from the book’s beginning. Check out the cover below…
And here’s an excerpt from The Last House on Needless Street, showcasing the distinct voice of Ted, the book’s first narrator…
Today is the anniversary of Little Girl With Popsicle. It happened by the lake, eleven years ago – she was there, and then she wasn’t. So it’s already a bad day when I discover that there is a Murderer among us.
Olivia lands heavily on my stomach first thing, making high- pitched sounds like clockwork. If there’s anything better than a cat on the bed, I don’t know about it. I fuss over her because when Lauren arrives later she will vanish. My daughter and my cat won’t be in the same room.
‘I’m up!’ I say. ‘It’s your turn to make breakfast.’ She looks at me with those yellow-green eyes then pads away. She finds a disc of sun, flings herself down and blinks in my direction. Cats don’t get jokes.
I fetch the newspaper from the front step. I like the local because it has a rare bird alert – you can write in if you see something spe- cial, like a northern flicker or a Siberian accentor. Even this early, the dim air is as warm as soup. The street feels even quieter than usual. Hushed, like it’s remembering.
When I see the front page my stomach goes into curls and knots.
There she is. I forgot it was today. I’m not so good with time.
They always use the same picture. Her eyes are big in the shadow of her hat brim, the fingers clenched on the stick as if she thinks someone might take it away from her. Her hair lies wet and sheeny on her skull, short as a boy’s. She has been swimming, but no one is wrapping her in a fluffy towel to dry her. I don’t like that. She might catch cold. They don’t print the other picture, the one of me. They got in big trouble for that. Though not big enough if you ask me.
She was six. Everyone was upset. We have a problem with that around here, especially by the lake, so things happened fast. The police searched the houses of everyone in the county who might hurt children.
I wasn’t allowed to wait inside while they did it, so I stood out on the steps. It was summer, bright and hot as the surface of a star. My skin burned slowly as the afternoon wore on. I listened as they pushed back the ugly blue rug in the living room, tore up the floorboards and knocked a hole in the wall in the back of my closet because they thought it sounded hollow. Dogs went all over my yard, my bedroom, everything. I knew what kind of dogs they were. They had the white trees of death in their eyes. A thin man with a camera came and took pictures as I stood there. I didn’t think to stop him.
‘No picture, no story,’ he said to me as he left. I didn’t know what that meant but he waved goodbye in a cheerful way so I waved back. ‘What is it, Mr Bannerman?’ The woman detective looked like possum. Very tired.
‘Nothing.’ I was shaking. Got to be quiet, Little Teddy. My teeth made little clicks like I was cold, but I was so hot.
‘You were yelling my name. And the word “green”, I believe.’ ‘I must have been thinking about this story I made up when I was a kid, about the lost boys who turned into green things, at the lake.’ She gave me a look. I knew it well. I get that look all the time. I held tight to the trunk of the little oak in the front yard. The tree lent me its strength. Was there something to tell? If so it hovered just over the edge of my thoughts.
‘Mr Bannerman, is this your only residence? No other property around here? No hunting cabin, nothing like that?’ She wiped sweat off her top lip. Care pressed down on her, like an anvil on her back. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No, no, no.’ She wouldn’t understand about the weekend place.
The police went away in the end. They had to, because I was at the 7-Eleven all afternoon and everyone says so. The security tape says so. What I used to do there was: I sat outside on the sidewalk by the sliding doors. When they parted with a whoosh and released people in a blast of cold air, I asked for candy. Sometimes if they had it they gave it to me, and sometimes they even bought it for me. Mommy would have been ashamed if she knew but I loved candy so much. I never went near the lake or Little Girl With Popsicle.
When they finally finished and let me back in the house I could smell them all over. Traces of cologne, sweat, squeaky rubber and chemicals. I was upset that they’d seen my precious things, like the picture of Mommy and Daddy. The photograph was fading even then, their features growing pale. They were leaving me, vanishing into white. Then there was the broken music box on the mantel – Mommy brought it from her faraway home. The music box didn’t play. I broke it the same day I smashed the Russian dolls, the day of the thing with the mouse. The little ballerina was snapped from her stem, felled and dead. Maybe I felt worst about her. (I call her Eloise. I don’t know why; she just looks like an Eloise.) I heard Mommy’s beautiful voice in my ear. You take everything from me, Theodore. Take, take, take.
Those people had looked at all my stuff with their eyes and thoughts and the house didn’t feel like mine any more.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply to calm myself. When I opened them again the Russian doll smiled fatly back. Beside her sat the music box. Eloise the ballerina stood proud and upright, arms perfect and poised above her head. Mommy and Daddy smiled down from the photograph. My beautiful orange rug was like soft pills underfoot.
I felt better right away. Everything was OK. I was home. Olivia’s head butted my palm. I laughed and picked her up.
That made me feel even better. But overhead in the attic, the green boys stirred.
The next day I was in the newspaper. The headline was suspect’s house searched. And there I was, standing in front of the house. They searched other houses but the article made it sound like it was just mine and I guess those people were smart enough to cover their faces. No picture, no story. They put my photograph right alongside the one of Little Girl With Popsicle, which was a story in itself.
The picture didn’t show the name of the street but people must have recognised it, I guess. Rocks and bricks came through the windows. So many. As soon as I replaced a pane another rock came through. I felt like I was going crazy. It happened so many times that I gave up and nailed plywood over the windows. It slowedthem down. Not as much fun throwing rocks when there’s nothing to break. I stopped going out during the day. That was a bad time.
I put Little Girl With Popsicle – the newspaper with her picture in it, I mean – in the closet under the stairs. I bend down to put it at the bottom of the pile. It’s then that I see it on the shelf, half hidden behind the tower of newsprint – the tape recorder.
I recognise it immediately. It’s Mommy’s. I take the machine off the shelf. Touching it makes me feel strange, like someone’s whispering nearby, just below the level of my hearing.
There’s a tape already in the machine, part used – about half of one side has been recorded. It’s old, with a striped yellow-and- black label. Her faded formal handwriting. Notes.
I don’t listen to the tape. I know what’s on it. She always spoke her notes aloud. Her voice had a slight hitch around the consonants; she couldn’t quite get rid of it. You could hear the sea in her voice. She was born far away, Mommy, under a dark star.
I think, Just leave it there, forget I’ve seen it.
I ate a pickle and now I feel a lot better. After all, that stuff happened a long time ago. The light is growing and it’s going to be a beautiful day. The birds will be arriving. Each morning they pour out of the forest and descend on my back yard. Yellowthroats, kinglets, buntings, red crossbills, sparrows, blackbirds, city pigeons. It’s crowded and beautiful. I love to watch it. I made the peephole just the right size in just the right place in the ply- wood – I can see the whole back yard. I make sure the feeders are always full up and that there’s water. Birds can suffer in this hot weather.
I am about to look out like I do every day, when my stomach lurches. Sometimes my insides know things before my mind does. This is wrong. The morning is too quiet. I tell myself not to be weird, take a deep breath and put my eye to the hole.
I see the jay first. He lies in the dead centre of the lawn. His bright mess of feathers shine like an oil slick. Twitching. One long wing strokes the air, desperate for flight. They look weird when they’re grounded, birds. They’re not meant to stay put for long.
My hands shake as I turn the keys in the three big locks on the back door. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Even now I take a moment to lock it behind me. The birds lie all over the yard, scattered on the parched grass. They twitch, caught helpless on what looks like pieces of tan paper. Many are dead, maybe twenty. Some are not. I count seven hearts still beating. They gasp, their narrow black tongues stiff with pain.
My mind runs like ants, everywhere. It takes me three breaths to make sense of what I see. In the night someone went to each feeding place and put glue traps down, wrapped them around the wire cages, attached them to the balls that hang from string. When the birds came to feed in the dawn their feet and beaks stuck to the adhesive.
All I can think is, Murder, murder, murder … Who would do this to the birds? Then I think, I have to clean up. I can’t let Lauren see.
That stray tabby cat crouches in the ivy by the wire fence, amber eyes intent.
‘Go away!’ I shout. I throw the nearest thing to hand, which is an empty beer can. The can flies wide and hits the fence post with a noise like dunggg. She goes slowly, in her uneven clawless limp, as if it is her own idea.
I collect the living birds. They stick together in my hands, bound into a twitching mass. They look like a monster from my bad dreams, legs and eyes everywhere, beaks drinking the air. When I try to separate them, feathers part from flesh. The birds make no sound. Maybe that’s the worst part. Birds aren’t like people. Pain makes them quiet.
I take them inside and try all the things I can think of to dis- solve the glue. But it only takes a few tries with the solvent to see that I’m making it worse. The birds close their eyes and pant in the fumes. I don’t know what to do now. This kind of stuck is for ever. The birds can’t live but they’re not dead. I think about drowning them and then hitting them on the head with a hammer. Each idea makes me feel weirder. I think about unlocking the laptop cupboard. Maybe the internet has an idea. But I can’t figure out where to put the birds down. They stick to everything they touch.
Then I remember the thing I saw on TV. It is worth a try, and we have vinegar. Working with one hand, I cut a length of hose. I fetch a big Tupperware box, baking soda and the white vinegar from under the sink. I put the birds carefully in the box, seal it and pass the length of hose through the hole I pierce in the plastic lid. I mix the baking soda and vinegar in the bag and fasten it to the hose with a rubber band. Now it is a gas chamber. The air in the box begins to change, and the feathered twitching slows. I watch the whole thing, because death deserves a witness. Even a bird should have that. It doesn’t take long. They had half given up already, from the heat and the fear. A pigeon is the last to die; the rise and fall of its plump chest grows shallow, and then it falls still.
The Murderer has made me into a murderer too.
I put the corpses in the trash out back. Limp, still-warm bodies, soft to the touch. A lawnmower starts somewhere on the block. The scent of cut grass crawls through the air. People are waking up.
‘You OK, Ted?’ It is the man with hair the colour of orange juice.
He takes his big dog to the woods each day.
I say, ‘Oh sure, fine.’ The man is looking at my feet. I realise that I am not wearing shoes or socks. My feet are white and hairy. I cover one foot with the other but it doesn’t make me feel any better. The dog pants and grins at me. Pets are better than their owners in general. I feel bad for all those dogs and cats and rabbits and mice. They have to live with people but, worse, they have to love them. Now, Olivia is not a pet. She’s so much more than that. (I expect everyone feels this about their cat.)
When I think about a Murderer creeping around my house in the cold dark, laying traps in my yard – maybe even peering in, watching me, Lauren and Olivia with their dead beetle eyes – my heart stutters.
I come back. The Chihuahua lady is standing right up close. Her hand is on my shoulder. That’s unusual. People don’t like to touch me, as a rule. The dog under her arm trembles, stares about with bulging eyes.
I am standing in front of the Chihuahua lady’s house, which is yellow with green trim. I feel I have just forgotten something, or am just about to know it. Sharpen up, I tell myself. Don’t be weird. People notice weird. They remember.
‘… your poor foot,’ the woman is saying. ‘Where are your shoes?’ I know the tone. Small women want to take care of big men. It is a mystery. ‘You got to look after yourself, Ted,’ she says. ‘Your mother would be worried sick about you.’
I see that my foot is leaking – a dark red trickle across the concrete. I must have stepped on something. ‘I’m chasing that stray,’ I say. ‘I mean, I was chasing her. I don’t want her to get the birds in my yard.’ (I don’t always get tenses right. Everything always feels like it’s happening now and sometimes I forget it actually happened then.)
‘It’s a real shame, that cat,’ she says. Interest lights up her eyes. I have given her something else to feel. ‘The thing is a pest. The city should deal with stray cats like they do the other vermin.’
‘Oh, I agree,’ I say. ‘Sure.’
(I don’t recall names but I have my ways of judging and remembering people. The first one is: would they be kind to my cat? I would not let this woman near Olivia.)
‘Anyway, thanks,’ I say. ‘I feel better now.’
‘You bet,’ she says. ‘Come and have iced tea tomorrow. I’ll make cookies.’
‘I can’t tomorrow.’
‘Well, any time. We’re neighbours. We have to look out for each other.’
‘That’s what I always say.’ I am polite.
‘You’ve got a nice smile, Ted, you know? You should use it more often.’
I wave and grin and limp away, miming pain I don’t feel, favouring the bleeding foot until I am sure she has rounded the corner.
The Chihuahua lady didn’t notice that I was gone, which is good. I lost time but not too much, I think. The sidewalk is still warm underfoot, not hot. The lawnmower still buzzes somewhere on the block, the scent of cut grass is sticky and green on the air. Maybe a couple of minutes. But it should not have happened in the street. And I should have put shoes on before I left the house. That was a mistake.
I clean my cut foot with disinfectant from a green plastic bottle. I think it was meant for floors or countertops, not for skin. The foot looks much worse after; the skin is red and raw. Looks like it would really hurt if I could feel it. But at least the cut is clean now. I wrap my foot in gauze. I have a lot of gauze and bandages about the place. Accidents happen in our house.
My hands are still sticky after, as if something clings to them, like gum or death. I recall reading something somewhere that birds have lice. Or maybe that’s fish. I clean my hands with the floor stuff too. I am shaky. I take the pill that I should have taken a few hours ago.
Eleven years ago today Little Girl With Popsicle vanished. This morning someone killed my birds. Maybe these two things don’t have anything to do with each other. The world is full of stuff that doesn’t make sense. But maybe they are connected. How did the Murderer know that so many birds feed in my yard at dawn? Do they know the neighbourhood? These thoughts do not make me feel good.
I make a list. I write at the top: The Murderer. It is not a very long list.
I suck the end of my pencil. Trouble is, I don’t know the neighbours so well. Mommy did. That was her thing, charming people. But they walk in the other direction when they see me coming. I have seen them actually turn around and hurry away. So the Murderer could be out there right now, a couple of houses down, eating pizza or whatever and laughing at me. I add to the list:
The Otter man or His wife or their
Children Men who live in Blue
Lady who Smells like Doughnuts
That is almost all the people on the street.
I don’t really think any of them are the Murderer. Some, like the otter family, are on vacation right now.
Our street has a strange name. Sometimes people stop and take pictures of the dented street sign out front. Then they go away, because there’s nothing but the woods beyond.
Slowly I add another name to the list. Ted Bannerman. You never know.
I unlock the closet where I keep the art supplies, and I hide the list carefully under an old box of chalk that Lauren never uses.
I judge people two ways – on how they treat animals, and on what they like to eat. If their favourite food is some kind of salad, they are definitely a bad person. Anything with cheese, they are probably OK.
The Last House on Needless Street is out September 28th. You can pre-order it now.