I couldn’t sleep for a while last year, after a friend of mine died. There’s a peculiar quality to those late hours of the night—time slips and loops back on itself. You’re not sure how long you’ve been awake, watching the ceiling, until the first grey hints of dawn seep into the world.
One night, researching for my next book, I began listening to the recordings of Edmund Kemper describing his crimes. I woke with a start in broad daylight. Kemper’s voice still droned out of my headphones. I had slept right through until morning.
I started to rely on it. Some people use podcasts to fall asleep—I came to use confessions of murder. From BTK’s testimony in court, to Jennifer Pan’s police interrogation of how she staged the murders of her parents, to Elizabeth Wettlaufer’s confession of killing eight seniors with insulin, I listened to them all. Their voices wove through my dreams.
I was worried about this growing tendency of mine. What did mean? When I—tentatively at first—discussed it with others I discovered that I’m not alone. In times of sorrow or stress it seems, we often turn to the most unthinkable, the most horrific narratives we can find. Maybe we need to believe that grief and violence are visited on the world by a person, that there’s some kind of organising force behind it. Or perhaps it’s a kind of inoculation against horror, a rehearsal for the awful, deep feelings that we fear are to come. I discussed it with a psychologist friend of mine. She told me we can do three things with a threat—we can run from it, fight it, or try to make friends with it. The appetite for—perhaps particularly women’s’ appetite for—true crime seems to stem from this impulse—to seek answers to unanswerable questions. If we can’t make friends with it, we can at least know as much as possible about it.
Ted Bundy holds particular horror for me, because of the arrant privilege that allowed him to carry out so many killings. He was moderately intelligent, perceived as good-looking and somewhat articulate. He perpetuates the myth of the attractive, smooth-talking, evil genius serial killer. Bundy was not an evil genius. He was a psychopath who succeeded too long and too often because he was educated, male, white and lacked the empathy which restrains most people from acts of violence and cruelty.
Echoes of Bundy reverberate through my third novel, The Last House on Needless Street, in particular the Lake Sammamish murders, when Bundy abducted Janice Ott and Denise Naslund from a crowded shore on a hot summer day—and tried to abduct four more who refused to accompany him. He gave these women his real name, Ted. It’s an event that holds a cold grip on my imagination. When the remains of three women, including Ott and Naslund, were found on a neighbouring hillside months later, the forensics team had to develop unusual, macabre measures to process the scene. They collected coyote faeces, containing finger bones, and bird nests, whose structures were interwoven with human hair. How long, wondered Robert Keppel, Chief Criminal Investigator for the Washington State Attorney General who was at the scene, had it taken the birds to learn to make nests in this way?
The birds had no concept of how horrifying their nests were. Coyotes will always eat whatever they can find. Similarly, the forest at the end of Needless Street is vast and indifferent to human suffering. It’s neither good nor bad, but its own roiling force. It does not distinguish between human evil, suffering, love or hope. Human endeavour is overrun by the wild, leaving no trace. There’s something terrifying about this, but it’s also a comfort. Even horror can’t leave its mark for ever.
Love and hope however do endure, can even be born, in the face of horror and suffering. Having conjured this atrocity in The Last House on Needless Street, I was determined that compassion and life must also thread their way through the novel—like filigree perhaps, or golden hair, woven into a nest for hatching birds.
Recently, I haven’t needed confessions of murder to fall asleep. And I’m writing a new book with very different subject matter. When I think of my friend I still get those sharp, stomach-churning dips of sorrow—but it’s a little easier now. At night I am content to leave the murderer’s voices alone, out in the dark, talking on and on to no one.
About the Author:
Catriona Ward (she/her) was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the United States, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. She studied English at Oxford and later the Creative Writing Masters at the University of East Anglia. Her second novel, Little Eve, won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award and the August Derleth Prize at the British Fantasy Awards. Her debut, The Girl from Rawblood, also won the 2016 August Derleth Prize, making her the first and only woman to win the prize twice. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She divides her time between London and the remote English moors.
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