When Catriona Ward was about 13, she’d wake up each night with a hand in the small of her back, pushing her out of bed. “It was absolutely terrifying. I could feel that there was someone in the room.” Had Google been around in the early 1990s, she might have found out sooner about hypnagogic hallucinations, intensely real sensations on the border between wakefulness and sleep. “But it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not; the fear is real. And there’s nothing else quite like it, that fear in the dark.”
Fear in the dark is what powered her 2015 gothic horror debut, Rawblood, the follow-up Little Eve, and now her breakout third book, The Last House on Needless Street, published on 18 marzo. Buzz has been building for months around a dark, audacious highwire act of a novel that can be only tentatively described for risk of giving too much away. Whereas Ward’s previous novels were historical chillers set in remote corners of Britain, featuring young women traumatised by cursed families and social oppression, the new book looks at first like a contemporary American thriller. There are horrors hidden in a rundown house on the edge of a forest; a spate of disappearing children; a vulnerable woman searching for answers. Ward introduces us to Ted, a bizarre, childlike loner who lives with his daughter Lauren and cat Olivia – and then pulls the rug, repetidamente, from under the reader’s feet.
The book’s starting point was the relationship between serial killers and their pets, the disarmingly upbeat Ward explains by Zoom from Dartmoor. What happens when those without empathy connect with another living being? As she points out in an afterword, Dennis Nilsen’s dog, Bleep, “was the only creature he could be said to have had any functional relationship with”. But the project wasn’t getting anywhere, until seismic life changes – the end of a long relationship, leaving her job working for a human rights foundation and, a 38, moving back in with her parents – left her with “nothing to hold on to except the idea of this strange narrative about a cat”.
“When you clear certain things from your life, you do leave a blank space, and all these thoughts started to emerge. A dam opened up and I realised what I had to do.”
One of the book’s many surprises is that it is partly narrated by Olivia, a fastidious, deeply religious feline who refers to humans as “teds” and gives us an exterior perspective on her unreliable owner. (“Ted is not a very clean ted. His bathroom does not look like the bathrooms on TV.”) Olivia, Ward remarks, owes something to David Sedaris; she provides humorous respite from the otherwise harrowing narrative. Es, ella admite, difficult to write as a cat.
“I started having fun with it when I realised that what a cat would De Verdad like to do is watch a television show of itself, describing different types of naps.
“What do people see in a cat? What do they need from them? It’s quite a moving relationship. They’re fulfilling our desire for something mystical and sphinx-like and unknowable, and yet slinky and friendly. There’s a magic about a cat which we desperately need, in these times more than ever.”
Setting the book in America opened up memories of a “very compartmentalised childhood”. Ward’s 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, dónde Rawblood is set. Ward’s mother taught English wherever they were posted, while Ward and her younger sister “didn’t really take an exam” until studying for A-levels in the UK at Bedales. “I never felt I lacked in education because we just read all the time. All we did was read.” Moving so often, sometimes without even a working phone, it was impossible to maintain ties outside the family; “a guillotine comes down”. She and her sister had “a very intense emotional relationship because there were only the two of us – we loved each other so much, but because there was nowhere else to put it, it becomes overwhelming. We looked very alike as well. You’re in the process of becoming, growing up – and it’s strange for your sense of identity.”
Ward soon seized on gothic and horror fiction to contextualise her night terrors. “The first ghost story I ever read was ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ – I remember thinking ‘Ah!’ I got the same thrill from The Haunting of Hill House. pensé: esto is where you put that. This is how you rationalise and contain that feeling. By sharing it, by opening it to the light you kind of disempower it.”
After studying English at Oxford, Ward trained as an actor in the US – “all I’d wanted to do, ever, since I was a little child” – but froze up in auditions. Now she links her theatrical ambition now to the desire to tell stories: “I was such a massive inhaler, hoovering up and consuming all the books I could.” She worked on Rawblood as part of an MA in creative writing at UEA, but the book ended up taking her seven years. “I found it difficult to reverse the stream – from receiving words and stories to myself creating. It felt like a huge act of temerity.”
A superbly achieved slice of gothic reinvention, Rawblood unfolds the story of a cursed family, trapped in an ancient house, whose generations are hunted down by a malevolent female presence: “a woman, or once a woman. blanco, starved …” It explores psychological, social and body horrors, from the “ghastly kitchen” of Victorian dissection labs to the global carnage and existential devastation of the first world war, and on to the early 20th century’s medical brutalisation of women. “I just wanted to write a proper gothic novel,” Ward says now, describing it as a “kaleidoscope” of the genre, with nods to Frankenstein, Drácula, The Turn of the Screw y The Woman in White.
Little Eve, which won the Shirley Jackson and a British fantasy award, is set amid a cult on a tiny Scottish island after the first world war, with women and children held in thrall by the charismatic Uncle. Opening with a massacre, it intertwines the fates of two teenage girls – one the killer, one the survivor. The horror here arises from the sadistic control exerted by the damaged patriarch, who creates a toxic family that is also a prison.
Ambos Rawblood y Little Eve explore the idea of second sight, and in one agonising scene Eve’s eye is removed as part of a ritual. Ward was born without sight in one eye, but it took a boyfriend to point out the connection. “It didn’t occur to me, not once, that I was writing something from my own personal experience! The way you use yourself is so strange. Writing always happens offstage, in your peripheral vision.”
Ward wanted The Last House on Needless Street to be a departure – “to write the mad and anarchic idea that came to me, as opposed to worrying too much about creating the platonic ideal of a gothic novel”. (She also told herself: “I can’t write another book about lonely abused girls on moors.”) But it continues her fascination with how monsters are made, and how we recognise the monstrous within us. En Rawblood, the terror of “her” hovers between projection and self-recognition, while in Little Eve every character is warped by their abuse at the hands of Uncle.
“I have a real affinity for the monster,” Ward says. “Every monster has a story. Empathy and monstrosity go hand in hand, you can’t provoke horror in the reader without evoking an intensely empathetic reaction at the same time. More than the monsters, we fear becoming them.”
Monstrous mothers, especialmente, rear up throughout her work. “I’m not a mother, and my own mother is not a monster. But one of the first things my parents asked me after reading Rawblood estaba: ‘It’s not us?!’ Family ties are so primordial and atavistic, you can always imagine the power, what would you do if it went wrong – explore those relationships from a place of relative calm and ease.”
This is a fertile period for horror writing, from the success of Andrew Michael Hurley y Kelly Link to new voices such as Sue Rainsford y Lucie McKnight Hardy. It’s a welcome resurgence for a genre that has been perpetually sidelined for a host of reasons, from the feminisation of early gothic to the infantilisation of Stephen King. “Some things are considered to be for kids because they’ve got big archetypal shapes to them – they access fears that perhaps only children are supposed to feel.” And perhaps, as such an intrinsic part of the oral tradition, horror is still seen as “a bit yokelly and countrified”. “We have electricity and Bodum kettles now, we don’t have to be afraid!"
But as Ward points out, this is “a big, generously shaped genre that has room for all sorts of variations”. Her novels are all survival stories, drawing on the conventions of gothic (fractured narratives, nonlinear chronologies) to reflect the intrusive memories and jagged experiences of PTSD. But horror more widely can also be “very camp, in the Susan Sontag way”, with tropes deployed to a knowing audience. “People know what it means when the reception dies on the cellphone, it’s a familiar pathway. I always do try to subvert, not diminish, expectations. Suspense and horror readers really enjoy that reciprocity between the reader and author – you’re playing an elegant game of tennis. Each of you knows what the signifier denotes.”
And nearly all art borrows from horror, she points out. “All good writing has horror in it. I cannot watch Fawlty Towers, it arouses such innate horror in me – all the dread and anxiety of what will happen next! I feel about that what most people feel reading what I write.”
De hecho, Ward admits cheerfully that “I’m terrified of everything – very afraid of the dark, hyper-vigilant, easily startled. People think that because I write horror, I’m inured, but that would make me a terrible writer. Because I’m frightened, the reader is frightened.
“Horror is a reaching out through the page to the reader, saying I’m afraid of this too, but if we go through it together, you look the horror in the face. The very act of writing and reading gothic or horror seems to me recuperative. That’s the experience people are looking for, a huge mutual moment of staring down the darkness.”