Catriona Ward is not your typical horror author.
In a genre that can often seem full to bursting with blood and gore, detailed descriptions of violent deaths, and literal monsters lurking in dark corners, her books have a distinctly more psychological bent, telling stories that are frequently as heartbreaking as they are disturbing. But the author herself isn’t much a fan of the genre as a consumer.
“I am a complete scaredy-cat,” Ward admits with a laugh. “I cannot watch horror films and I find horror really difficult to read. But I think that’s the only reason I can write it—because if I’m not afraid I don’t really know how you’d expect the reader to be afraid.”
Ward’s fiction is notable for its dark and often uncomfortable psychological themes, though her stories include very few of the tropes and tricks most frequently associated with the horror genre and generally delight in turning expectations about what these stories should do and be on their heads.
“The things that really frighten me are more existential things, the things that go to the heart of and threaten or question human nature,” Ward explains. “I find those the more horrifying questions. And I always think perhaps we’ve [evolved] over thousands of years of myth-making and storytelling to ascribe acts and feelings to these supernatural tales or monster- or creature-based things that we can’t bear to accept perhaps might have human origins.”
Such is the case in Ward’s latest novel,Sundial. Part family drama, part psychological exploration, and part mystery thriller, the story follows Rob, a woman who initially seems like a typical suburban housewife. She’s got a husband and two daughters and if she had the sort of uncomfortable youth one doesn’t like to talk about in polite society, well, who can blame her. After all, her childhood home, Sundial, keeps many uncomfortable secrets, ranging from the awkward (her adoptive parents’ hippie off-the-grid style of living) to the downright disturbing (the bizarre family science experiments that involved overt animal abuse).
But when Rob’s eldest daughter Callie—a strange child who collects animal bones and whispers to imaginary friends no one else can see—starts exhibiting some disturbing and even potentially threatening behavior, she decides the only way to protect her perfect life is to take Callie back to where it all started, to where their family’s history of darkness ostensibly came from. Back to Sundial, where Rob will have to make a terrible choice.
Much like Ward’s previous novel, The Last House on Needless Street, Sundial is a story about assumptions—about whose word we trust, what stereotypes we accept, what kind of story we think we’re reading—and how those assumptions are occasionally used against us. The book covers a lot of similar ground, involving everything from narrators of questionable reliability and complex, unconventional familial relationships to the lingering ways trauma can often be passed down from one generation to the next.
But this book is also something else entirely: A twisty, intergenerational mystery that has one foot firmly planted in the past, Sundial wrestles with existential questions of human nature and why we are the way we are. And its most frightening moments are often entirely cerebral ones.
“I wanted it to be different,” she says. “I was really keen that it be distinct and have its own complete imaginative world. Needless Street, I think, was more about containment, Sundial it’s got that desert expanse to it.”
Yet, according to Ward, the very openness promised by the desert setting is, in its way, another well-told lie.
“I was in the Mojave when I got the idea for this book, she says. “And what I found so remarkable about this setting is that, although it looks like freedom and expansive space because it can so easily kill you, it’s actually another version of a cage. So it looks like freedom, but it’s not at all.”
At its heart, Ward says, Sundial is a story of “mothers and daughters and sisters” before anything else. And the imperfect relationships between the novel’s female characters—Rob and her sister Jack, Rob and her daughters Callie and Annie, Rob and her stepmother Mia are all crucial are the emotional linchpins around which the drama of Sundial turns.
“I just wanted this to be a really women-centered novel,” Ward says. “I mean, the burden of motherhood…I’m not a mother, but all I can imagine is this immense stress and pressure of having to keep someone else alive. And not only keep them alive but provide them with a lifelong safe environment and guidance and nurturing. I can’t imagine the enormity of the task.”
Yet this is a book that also very clearly wants us to question what it means to be a mother, and embrace the idea that feelings such as resentment or ambivalence can and do often coexist right alongside “ferocious” and “overwhelming” love.
“It’s possible and I think tempting to sanitize and sentimentalize the mother-daughter bond,” Ward says. “ But I think that that does it a disservice.”
There are many different kinds of mothers and mother figures in Sundial—some biological, some spiritual, some in name only—but for Ward, the central questions of the story revolve around the things that make us human.
“It all begs the question—which people have been asking themselves ever since we first came into being-which is, what are we? How much of us is innate and how much of us is created by our environment and our upbringing and our genetics? How much of it is us, and indeed, where do we lie in that nebulous little ground? I just found it so fascinating.”
Sundial doesn’t offer any easy answer to any of these questions, from the existential (what makes us human?) to the basic (is Rob’s daughter spiraling into some kind of madness?). But what the book does do, is skillfully reflect your own ideas and assumptions as a reader back at you, whatever they happen to be.
“A lot of the book and the characterizations are like a Rorschach test in itself, [that depend on] who you are and what associations you have,” Ward says..” And who and what you’ve perhaps been led to believe is good or bad will determine what you think of the book and the people in it.”
And, to be fair, how you feel about the various characters in Sundial will likely change several times over the course of the story. (Or even well after the last page.)
“A lot of the time, I get comments that [people] don’t know what’s going on in the book until a certain point,” Ward says. “And I’m like, well, that’s very lifelike. Most of the time you’re figuring it out as you go along and, in fact, I think that’s where the tension comes from, is that nothing horrible is actually happening, but you’re just waiting and waiting and waiting.”
Ward is especially deft at writing this choking sort of tension that builds as the story goes on, likely because it’s precisely the sort of thing that scares her the most.
“The biggest horror for me is waiting for the horror, in the same way that you don’t see the monster until the end. I think it’s much more powerful psychologically and it also realistically reflects our lives,” she explains. “There’s a sense that it’s waiting for us somewhere, and we don’t know when it’s going to jump. We don’t have any kind of instruction or omniscient narrator in our heads telling us what’s going to happen and when or who’s a good person or a bad person. We just have to muddle through as we go.”
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.