It’s October babay! And that means I have to read horror and horror alone, because that’s just the way I am. Sundial, by Catriona Ward, is the first book up for review. Sundial enchanted me in ways both unexpected and expected. Ward’s latest novel is a clever and emotional ride through both gothic and serial killer tropes that delivers on deconstructing both.
Callie has almost killed her sister, and her mother, Rob, needs to do something about it before it becomes worse. The younger daughter was found in a near comatose state after overdosing on insulin pills. Rob finds the evidence that Callie may have done it, and much much more. Underneath Callie’s floor boards is her backpack full of things people should not see. Along with the cap to the empty pill bottle, Rob finds a rotting animal corpse and several paintings with animal bones attached to their backs. Fearing the worst, Rob spirits Callie away to her childhood home of Sundial, where her adoptive parents ran mind experiments with dogs and begins to tell Callie about her twin sister, Jack. But Callie sees her mom unraveling, and with the help of her friends, Pale Callie and Pale dumpster puppy, she may have to fight to survive.
Even though this is only my second novel of Ward’s, it’s clear that her strength is her ability to write subjectively. She engrosses the reader’s mind with her character’s thoughts, emotions and perspectives. I rarely felt like I was looking into one’s mind, instead being invaded by it so that I can see their narrow view. I didn’t become the character, I just had a stronger idea of who they were. And Ward not only controls information this way, but heightens tension. You can feel the character hiding something from themselves, or from the world. The absence of the information is distinctly felt. But since Ward has never given the reader any idea that something in particular is missing, all you can feel are the contours of space left behind. It forces the reader to speculate, following the clues down a mad rabbit’s hole. It also pulls the tension to a tripwire tightness during interactions between Rob and Callie.
Secondly, Ward delivers on atmosphere, which adds another string to one’s suspension of disbelief. She really makes the compound of Sundial feel like a place that has baggage. It feels separate from her home in the suburbs, and really out of time and place generally. It’s isolated and surrounded by darkness most of the time. Even in daylight, the place has a foreboding menace that occupies the pages with an unending supply of patience. It knows it will get you, and it has all of the time in the world. From the moment that Rob throws the nearly rancid meat over the fences in the middle of the night, I was enthralled to this place. It sunk its teeth deep in me early, and hasn’t yet let go, weeks after I’ve finished it.
The heart of the story, though, lies within Rob’s past, and Callie’s unknown future. I don’t want to dive too deeply into it, because the mystery is well managed throughout. One of my fears picking this book up was whether Ward would rely on the same magic, or spend her time trying to dissuade the reader that she was doing it. Luckily, Ward side-steps either notion as she doesn’t have time for my fears, and instead delivers something better. She follows her heart into all the darkest corners she can find, but never leaves it aside for anything. Some of the later reveals to the story broke me in ways both great and small. Her pacing mimicking the long process of untying many small knots, making the bigger ones feel earned as you had to work for their impact.
Beyond Ward’s empathy lies her ability to build on your fears. I don’t know if I’d say I was particularly scared at one moment or another, but I don’t think that’s Ward’s strength or intent. Instead, she plays a game of Jenga, helping build the tower with your prejudices, existing genre tropes, and her own character’s perspectives. Every small moment feels like her removing a critical piece and placing atop an ever precarious foundation. You’re constantly waiting for it to fall, but you never know when it will. It is a terror of tension and atmsophere that never fully gets cathartic release. The final collapse only leads to aftershocks, never letting the reader let go of the ground they are holding onto. It’s an admirable feat that left me speechless at the finale of the book because it never felt like it ended.
Sundial was a pleasant and welcome start to the spooky season. Ward’s writing made me feel what the characters were going through as their own fears grew about each other. It put me into the time and place they were experiencing, causing my lizard brain to go on alert. But she also spoke to the more human aspects, making the terror only more palpable. If you are like me, and enjoyed The Last House on Needles Street, I implore you to step into Sundial.
Rating: Sundial 8.5/10