I was left slightly shell-shocked by Catriona Ward’s new novel Sundial, a state of mind that is rapidly becoming her trademark as a writer after her mind – meltingly strange and clever previous novel The Last House on Needless Street. When people ask me what it’s like to read her novels I liken it to the early films of M. Night Shymalan. Remember when you first watched The Sixth Sense? I remember sitting in the cinema as the final credits rolled thinking ‘what have I just watched?’ Then wondering if I could simply stay for the next showing and watch it again, knowing what was actually happening. They’re novels that won’t immediately show up as film or TV adaptations, because directors will be scratching their heads, wondering how best to tell the story visually, while keeping the revelations under wraps till the end. I’m waiting to see how someone manages the narrating cat, but if anyone can do it it’s Andy Serkis, who is currently developing last year’s smash hit.
I haven’t read her earliest work, but didn’t know what to expect in this new novel and whether she would be able to deliver those WTF?? moments that characterised The Last House on Needless Street. Well it turns out she can and she has. At first I was reading what seemed like a normal family drama and I wondered if we were going to have a change in style. Then there was a moment, everyone who has read it knows where I mean, where the everyday and mundane became strange and distorted. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Rob is mother to two daughters, Annie and Callie, and wife to Irving. They are a normal nuclear family, or so they seem. Rob finds out that Callie has the potential and the urge to hurt her little sister. She also finds that Callie is collecting the bones of small creatures, including a puppy from a dumpster. She also whispers to imaginary friends. Rob senses that there might be a darkness in Callie that reminds her of Sundial, the home in the desert where she grew up. Rob resolves to take Callie with her to the Mojave, and back to Sundial which has lain empty since she and Irving became a couple. She thinks this trip into the past will give her answers, but once there she is overwhelmed by memories of the past. Might she have to make a choice between her two children?
The author lets Rob start the story in the family home, establishing the dynamic of their family and the way we view them as readers. As we change to Callie’s narration, things seem very different. We realise that Callie is actually scared of her mother and this ‘mother/daughter’ trip they’re taking. She thinks Rob is looking at her differently and is worried about being alone with her. Consequently, we’re on edge with both narrators. I was never sure which one was telling me the truth of events or whether there is even is one established truth. The author is so brilliant at creating a ‘hall of mirrors’ effect where each reality becomes distorted, but in such a different way that I was struggling to get a grasp on who was dangerous and whether anyone would be leaving the desert in one piece.
With such complex books that are dependent on the scary location and unexpected revelations it’s very hard to know what to tell. I feel that Rob thinks she will shock Callie into a different path by telling her the story of her upbringing, even though I’m not entirely sure she has the ‘true’ version of events. We find out that she lived with her adoptive parents at the ranch, where dogs were kept for scientific experiments into behaviour. I’m not a huge believer of trigger warnings, but if you are genuinely upset or angered by this type of experimentation on animals then maybe this isn’t the book for you. I found this element disturbing and it definitely added to the dark atmosphere of their home. When we drop back into her childhood we know Rob believes that her father and stepmother, became a couple after the death of her mother who she only has fleeting memories of because she was so young. She doesn’t mind her stepmother, but feels an obligation to dislike her out of loyalty. However, slowly we slip through versions of this story rather like a set of never ending Russian dolls until I didn’t know who to trust. This is a perfect psychological horror where the supernatural elements may be real, or may be a delusion or hallucination formed by an unstable mind. There’s a truly sad moment where I can see Rob’s world could have become wider and full of life experiences we want for our children like friends, education and travel. Can she break with Sundial or will she be pulled inexorably back into her past?
It’s fair to say that no one is what they seem in this story. I was very interested in whether the family would be reunited again, but this seemed to become further and further away. There are believable elements; as a lot of people with horrific childhoods do, it seemed as if Rob may have replaced the ranch with another house of domestic horrors. Or had she been so tied to her past she had recreated it? There was manipulation and abuse evident alongside the hauntings. It would maybe be a stretch to say I enjoyed this book, because if it were possible I’d have been reading with my hands over my eyes! I didn’t always want to see or know more. Yet I can see that it’s a brilliant piece of writing that stirred up so many emotions from fear to hope, back to being completely terrified again.
Published by Viper 10th March 2022
Meet The Author
CATRIONA WARD was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the United States, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. She read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia.
‘The Last House on Needless Street’ (Viper Books, Tor Nightfire) was a Times Book of the Month, Observer Book of the Month, March Editor’s Pick on Open Book, a Between the Covers BBC2 book club selection, a Times bestseller, and is being developed for film by Andy Serkis’s production company, The Imaginarium.
‘Little Eve‘ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018) won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award and the August Derleth Prize for Best Horror Novel at the 2019 British Fantasy Awards, making her the only woman to have won the prize twice, and was a Guardian best book of 2018. Her debut Rawblood (W&N, 2015) won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and a WHSmith Fresh Talent title. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She lives in London and Devon.