Author: C.J. Tudor
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin imprint)
*scritch…scratch…skritch* slowly, through a tiny cloud of white dust, something appears on the pavement outside your house. Gradually, as the chalk dust settles, the terrifying results appear…a blurb:
“You can feel it in the woods, in the school and in the playground; you can feel it in the houses and at the fairground. You can feel it in most places in the small town of Anderbury . . . the fear that something or someone is watching you.
It began back in 1986, at the fair, on the day of the accident. That was when twelve-year-old Eddie met Mr Halloran – the Chalk Man.
He gave Eddie the idea for the drawings: a way to leave secret messages for his friends and it was fun, until the chalk men led them to a body.
Thirty years later, Ed believes the past is far behind him, until an envelope slips through the letterbox. It contains a stick of chalk, and a drawing of a figure.
Is history going to repeat itself?
Was it ever really over?
Will this game only end in the same way?”
Ah, childhood. We’ve all had one. Unless you were unfortunate enough to be have born straight into adulthood, that is. Some of us would no doubt like to forget that it ever happened, not everyone would have had a good time, but for those of us lucky enough to not have had to endure any real hardships, we can look back with fondness through good old nostalgic rose-tinted spectacles. People of my age (I’m now 47 at time of writing, and yes, I am aware that I look older and that shaving my beard off would take 20 years off of me, and I’ll never get another girlfriend with that thing on my face, but to those of you that tell me that…bugger off. You’re just jealous ;)), who were kids in the 70s and 80s had a great time of it, imo. We could, for the most part, play outside free from the threat of kidnapping, kiddie fiddling, being stabbed or shot (at least that’s how it seemed to us; we were fucking invincible). Amongst some of the biggest fears we had to deal with were: crossing the road; stepping in chalky white dog shit; getting hit on the head with the ruddy great sticks that we used to try to knock conkers out of their trees with (how many of those sticks that inevitably got stuck up there actually did brain someone as they eventually fell out?); getting caught smoking by our parents; having to ask for our ball back from the cantankerous old farts whose gardens we kicked them into; getting caught by aforementioned old farts when we had to sneak into said gardens to get them back; other people’s mums; avoiding the Bigger Kids, known as The Bullies, down the park; that sinking feeling of inevitability of a Good Time coming to an abrupt, possibly painful, end when The Bullies turned up and took over the swings and slide at the park…you get the idea. Then of course there were the good times: finding a porn mag in the bushes and seeing a ladies naughty bits – both naughty bits; buying what appeared to be the mother-load of sweets when someone gave you, or you found, a 10p piece (don’t forget we had 1/2 pences back then, too); Walkers Beef and Onion crisps; finding more than one salt packet in your Salt-n-Shake crisps (and the crushing disappointment when you found none); Jubblies; IPC comics (Beezer; Jackpot; Whizzer and Chips; Scream; Cor!); Saturday morning kids TV (Swap Shop and Saturday Superstore. I sadly missed out on Tiswas; I was a BBC boy); Saturday evening TV; classic era Grange Hill (Gripper Stebson and Tucker Jenkins, Zammo and Mr. Bronson); discovering comic shops in London; risking life and limb, or at least a serious brain injury, copying the stunts of the late, great Evel Knievel and his UK counterpart Eddie Kidd, on my poor, beleaguered Commando bike (we couldn’t afford a BMX or a Grifter); getting my first 10-speed racing bike; discovering that girls had…well, I’ll leave that one to your imagination *hastily changes subject*.
The point I’m labouring away at here is that being a kid, school and exams and shit aside, was mostly a Great Time. Life was for exploring, having fun and leaving the serious shit to the adults. In the Chalk Man, for me at least, I felt that CJ has tapped into this emotion superbly. Only her kids don’t have such a great time of it.
The Chalk Man is a book of two halves: one set in 1986 where a group of friends, not yet into their teens, struggle to cope with the summer from hell; and 2016, where they are now grown up and fragmented, the past beginning to stalk them. As, as mentioned at length above, a child of the late 70s/80s this book brought back so many memories, or feels as the kids now say. I was 15 in 1986, but the story of a group of friends gadding about on their bikes, building dens, getting bullied by the older kids all had a great sense of familiarity to it, albeit displaced by 4 or 5 years (by 1986 the young, yet-to-be-bearded Marty had discovered Queen and comics and was more on the sofa than on his bike). It helped to truly immerse me into their story. Ok, as a 12 year old I’d never seen a dead body, or witnessed a traumatic event such as that at the fairground, but the emotions, the group dynamics were all present and correct.
I know that this has been said before, by the very man himself in fact, but there is a very strong Stephen King vibe throughout this book. To me it is very similar in tone and structure to IT – King’s own ode to childhood and the terrors that can lurk within. I’m sure there are others too (I’ve heard that Stand By Me is an example, though I’ve yet to read that novella or see the film – I know, kill me now!), but this was the book that stood out to me when reading The Chalk Man. Don’t get me wrong here, this is not a criticism, far from it; to me this just enhanced my enjoyment further. King was the author who really got me into reading (along with Terry Pratchett), with The Dark Half, all those years ago. So to read this with the same sense of discovery of finding a new author who could so utterly absorb me into their writing is very exciting. CJ employs the same gut wrenching, often vomit inducing, descriptive prose that the Master also loves to assail us with, along with the same eye for character, dialogue and group dynamics. She plays with our emotions in the same way. Who knows, maybe Anderbury will become the new Derry, Maine? 😉
From a mythological point of view, I found The Chalk Man to be very similar to Luca Veste’s excellent “The Bone Keeper”; both tap into the fear of the urban myth, or the village bogeyman, that we have probably all experienced at some point in our lives, especially as children. Both books involve a woodland setting with creepy messages, via symbols and notes, being left, pointing towards a horrifying event, or driving our heroes out of their wits. However, there the similarities really end: The Chalk Man of our book is a very human being, who becomes demonised through the inevitable tattle and gossip of his actions, whereas The Bone Keeper is an urban myth stretching back decades, who may, or may not, have a human component (if you want to find out which it is I suggest you read the book; it really is very good indeed – my review is here).
Our hero in The Chalk Man is Eddie Adams (or Eddie Munster as he’s known to his mates). A regular kid really; he loves his mum and dad, has a small, but tight group of friends, keeps his nose clean and out of trouble. He loves to collect things though and this can lead him to steal objects that he feels he has to have. This habit leads him to make a terrible mistake, one that continues to haunt him into adulthood, bringing the Chalk Man back into his life and that of his friends. His friends: Fat Gav; Metal Mickey; Nicky and Hoppo, all of whom most of us will recognise in some form or other, stick together like glue, each having the other’s backs, that is until they begin to drift apart after a particularly tragic event. 30 years later, some of them are still friends, if not so close anymore, but they are all brought back together as the Chalk Man re-enters their lives again.
The Chalk Man is a true page turner: with each chapter alternating between 1986 and 2016, often ending on a wee cliffhanger, I found myself compelled to keep reading to know what happened next. As such I read this book in two days. It is a wonderfully constructed story of a lost childhood, of how small mistakes and well intentioned mistruths can lead to tragic consequences, of friendships made and lost. It is very brutal in parts; CJ doesn’t hold back in her descriptions of death and horror.
CJ Tudor is an author that I just know we are going to hear a lot of in the coming years. Like the best urban myths and ghost stories, she isn’t going to go away and will only get stronger and more powerful over time. This is her debut novel and she has set out her stall very strongly and most confidently indeed.
Highly recommended. 5/5.