In Julia Bartz’s New Thriller, a Social Worker Comes to Terms With Her Troubling Past (Exclusive)

The bestselling author of ‘The Writing Retreat’ will publish her second novel next year — read an exclusive excerpt here

<p>Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books; Savannah Lauren</p> Julia Bartz and the cover of her forthcoming novel

Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books; Savannah Lauren

Julia Bartz and the cover of her forthcoming novel 'The Last Session'

Julia Bartz’s 2023 debut novel, The Writing Retreat, followed a group of authors staying at the estate of a famed feminist horror writer — who soon learned that there were sinister forces at work. Now, the author's second book is poised to have readers hiding under their blankets once again.

PEOPLE can exclusively reveal the cover for the bestselling novelist’s new book, The Last Session, publishing next April from Emily Bestler and Atria Books.

Bartz’s latest book sees social worker Thea upended by the arrival of a catatonic woman at the psychiatric unit where she works. Thea is shocked to learn that the patient is linked to a dark period in her own life — but the new arrival has no memory of recent events.

<p>Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books</p> 'The Last Session' by Julia Bartz

Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books

'The Last Session' by Julia Bartz

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When the patient suddenly disappears, Thea follows her trail until she ends up at a controversial conversion retreat in New Mexico, where a couple attempts to uncover their attendees’ romantic and sexual problems.

While there, Thea finds herself becoming closer to the mysterious patient and her own troubled past — which threatens to surface as the retreat’s final session approaches, in what the novel’s publisher calls a “white-knuckled, locked-room thriller.”

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Read on for an exclusive excerpt from The Last Session.

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This is a womb.

That’s the image I cling to now, the only one that keeps me from screaming. 

My voice has long since run out. My throat is raw and burning and I keep bending over the ledge, cupping the cold water to my mouth to soothe it. I drink until my belly distends and I vomit most of it back up. There’s no comfortable position but it feels best to squeeze myself in a ball, listening to the rushing water thundering through the tiny chamber. 

Right over there, much too close, is the body. Normally it remains underneath the water, waterlogged, but every so often the current pushes it back up. The water’s cold so it’s decomposing slowly, but there’s still a stench.

Since I first explored this place by touch, I was confused when my fingers met the rancid, jelly-like mass. Then I realized what it was, what was in here with me. At that moment, sheer horror overtook me and I tried to force myself back through the tunnel I’d come out of, almost drowning myself in the process. Sputtering, swallowing, coughing. The current was superhuman, pushing me back like a hand. I knew even as I struggled that it was pointless. I was trapped. 

How long have I been down here? There no way to know, but it feels like days, weeks. After the initial shock and terror, anger buzzed through my body, battling with the cold that numbed my fingers and toes. I replayed the scene over and over: Standing at the lip of the hole with the others, my chest squeezing in sadness and fear. I hadn’t wanted her to go in. But it was what she’d decided. Only: she tricked me. They all did. As she walked up behind me, I didn’t even turn. And then: two warm palms on my lower back, shoving me into the swirling void. 

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Eventually the hunger overtook the anger, steak knives stabbing into my belly. But that receded too. I think you can survive a long time on just water, and I have all the water in the world. I drink where it comes out, away from the corpse. 

Now, the cold: that’s what will probably kill me. I knew it was important to dry off on the ledge, but even now, I continue to shiver. Sometimes it stops, starts again, like I’m a faulty machine. 

The darkness was the worst part, even more than the cold, but I’ve gotten used to it too. Now it feels like a velvety sleep mask, helping me to drift in and out of consciousness. There’s no night or day. Just slow seconds that tick by whenever I happen to be awake. 

My mind has become very still, empty, like a flat pond. Every so often the claustrophobic reality breaks the surface: the awareness of the tons of solid rock surrounding me, that immense weight pressing in from all sides. When this happens, all I can do is shriek and keen into my hands. My fingers, scraped and bloody, burn from the salty tears. 

New thoughts arise: This isn’t a cave. This is a womb. I am not yet born. I do not yet exist. All I have to do is wait. 

They’re soothing and help me drift back to sleep.

At some point, something new happens. Under the rush of water, I hear a voice. At first it’s a whisper, a hiss by my ear that sounds so real, I sit up and hit my head on the rock ceiling. 

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But no — of course there isn’t anyone else here. There isn’t room. 

It’s just me. My own mind, turning on me. 

But it’s weird — isn’t it? — that I can’t quite make out the words.
A phrase repeated, either: Are you the savior? or Will you save her? The whispers are sibilant, snake-like. 

Savior/save her? 

Save what? Save who? I dwell on the question, lazily, like a stoned person pausing in a stream to pick up an interesting rock. The whispers multiply, meld. Eventually they become a symphonic kind of lullaby. I drop the interesting rock and lay down in the stream. It’s warm and the sun shines overhead. Something slips against my calf, smooth and scaly. I shiver, wishing it away. 

You’re not done yet. 

The same voice, this time a warning in a clear tone. But I am done. My mind is shunting inward, slipping out of my grasp, like a phone dropped down a deep well. Right before I turn off completely, I wonder if it’s the next life, tapping on my knee, waiting for me to be reborn. 

Excerpted from The Last Session: A Novel by Julia Bartz. Copyright 2025 Julia Bartz. Published by Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books.

The Last Session will be published on April 1, 2025 and is now available for preorder, wherever books are sold.

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