A Captivating and Bone-Chilling Read
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
‘If you like my stuff, you’ll like this’, the Stephen King quote on the top of the book cover was the first thing that caught my eye when I picked C.J. Tudor’s debut novel - The Chalk Man - to read. As luck would have it, I am a big fan of the master of horror so suffice to say the expectations of the book prior to reading were pretty high.
Before dissecting the story and deeming whether or not it hit the nail right on the head, here is a brief summary of the plot.
The story first takes place in 1986 when Eddie, the protagonist of the story and his group of friends - Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky - are just a bunch of kids who play around in a fictional English village. This bit of the story has striking similarities to the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Both have a group of kids with only one girl in the mix, both groups love to ride their bikes. And both groups have their own ways of communicating with each other. In Stranger Things they use walkie talkies but in The Chalk Man, Eddie and co. opt for a much conventional and simpler mean of communication - little chalk stick figures they leave on each others’ driveways. The stick figures that differ in shape, colour, and size are codes which only they know to decipher.
Things start to go south when the chalk figures lead them to a dismembered body of a girl in the forest. For a while during the investigations, they live a life under the spotlight but soon the attention dies down and the case becomes cold as the Police lack strong leads to continue the probe.
Thirty years down the line, in 2016, the gang is now dispersed, living different lives with only two of the members still living in the small village. Just when it seemed as if the curious case of stick figures is all in the past, it comes back to haunt Eddie in the most unexpected way. One day, Eddie receives a letter containing a chalk figure. Soon he realises that all the other members of the gang too have received a letter of same nature. The now-grownups are about to discard the whole incident as a silly prank when one of the friends end up dead. They then realise, the only way out of the stick figures that have come back to haunt them is to crack the 30-year-old cold case.
Tudor herself has revealed that she is a big fan of Stephen King and evidences backing up this claim could be found throughout her debut novel. When the two plots compared, the coming-of-age novel - The Chalk Man bears similarities to the plot of King’s famous novel It. In both stories the protagonist group is faced with horror when they were children and were called back to the hometown years later to complete the unfinished business.
Although Tudor introduces all the main characters early on in the book, the incidents which solidifies the base of the whole story happens gradually and Tudor reels the reader into the story slowly and methodically in a perfect non-boring way. She spaces out the incidents methodically that at no point would the reader find the book to be bland or slow-paced. In fact, at the very beginning of the story, we are exposed to a gruesome accident with blood and all - quite unexpectedly so - that it keeps us shell-shocked until the next major incident.
All the characters in the book are flawed. Just like it is in a mystery novel, all main characters have either a secret and/or an imperfection which makes them all the more likable and relatable. There is not ‘mister nice guy’ or a ‘goody two shoes’ or a sensible person who acts as the glue that holds the otherwise diverse/imperfect group together. Even the minor characters in the story are not without flaws in their narrative. Thus, not only does this make it hard to narrow down suspects but it also leads to a plausible ending that is not far-fetched or too-good-to-be-true.
Conversely however, this plausibility of the ending might not sit well with some readers who like a mystic and abnormal ending. Since the supernatural element is strong from the start to the very end of the book, it is easy for anyone to think the ending of the book too, is of the same nature which will ultimately result in those readers feeling a bit let-down after realising that the supernatural element is a classic case of misdirection. If you take the mystic and paranormal nature out of it, the grand finale becomes rather predictable but rest assured, some lose ends of sub plots that get tied in towards the end will still come to you as a surprise.
Although the plot, flow and the characters of The Chalk Man feels like they are out of a Stephen-King novel, the book is rather short and a surprisingly easy read. The first-person narration Tudor uses is simple and so enables the reader to skim through chapters quickly. Some sections of the story come out as Eddie just thinking out loud and not necessarily holding any weight as far as the bigger picture of the story is concerned. For the heavily-invested reader who is eager to find out what happens in the story, these parts may come out as unnecessary. And although the story wouldn’t have missed those parts if they were to be edited out, I personally didn’t mind reading those parts as some of them really helped to get a better and broader picture of our protagonist Eddie and how his mind works.
The Chalk Man might not be the best crime/mystery novel out there but for a debut novel, it exceeds certain expectations. It deservedly won the 2019 Barry Award for the ‘Best First Novel’ despite the book getting some mixed reviews.
Tudor has since written two other novels, namely; The Hiding Place and The Taking of Annie Throne.