Jan 11 2018 2:00pm

Review: The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor is a riveting and relentlessly compelling psychological suspense debut that weaves a mystery about a childhood game gone dangerously awry and keeps readers guessing right up to the shocking ending.

Author C. J. Tudor is a student of thrillers that boldly venture into the realm of horror fiction, and her writing reflects the fact that she’s learned all the important lessons. In The Chalk Man, her impressive debut, she plays around with a plethora of tropes and eventually delivers a finale that makes her first novel feel more like the work of a seasoned author than a first offering. Perhaps more impressive than her playfulness is the absolute dominion of every element in the last third of the novel, which is something few authors could have pulled off in a narrative that includes incursions into the world of dreams, a story that takes place in two different time periods, and plenty of mental illness.

Back in 1986, Eddie Adams was a regular 12-year-old kid who enjoyed vacations, going to the park, collecting things, and spending as much time as possible with his friends, Hoppo, Metal Mickey, Fat Gave, and Nicky. They all lived in a small, unexciting English village, and any bit of excitement was welcome. Their lives were slowly changing with every step further into adolescence, but they were suddenly thrown into a world of chaos when they found a dismembered body in the woods by following chalk figures left on trees, which eerily resembled their own way of communicating with each other.

Many bad things happened, and years went by, but the past refused to fade away. Eddie, now Ed, receives a letter containing a chalk man 30 years after the horrible events shook the town. The deaths started again, and Ed realizes that the past is playing a huge role in the present—and that understanding everything about what happened three decades ago is the only way to stop the bloodshed.

The Chalk Man alternates between flashbacks and the present day. This technique is tricky, but Tudor manages to increase the suspense with each page and has a knack for finishing chapters with questions or revelations that force the reader to keep turning. Furthermore, there are two elements that make this an enjoyable read: a strong religious undertone and well-developed characters. The first comes in the form of small-town religious fanaticism that—while it does fall into some unremarkable territory and deals with a few tropes—remains interesting thanks to not only Eddie’s personal opinions but also those of his parents—both of which make the writing feel more like a discussion than a sermon:

I wonder if saints have to live completely blameless lives or if you can live like a sinner then just perform a few miracles and be sainted anyway? That seems to be the way with religion. Murder, rape, kill and maim, but all will be forgiven as long as you repent. Never seemed fair to me. But then God, like life, is not fair.

Switching between two different times opens the door to mistakes and loose ends, but Tudor works around these traps successfully and ultimately delivers a story that entertains as much as any thriller. The Chalk Man also dips into horror from time to time and contains a few creepy scenes. All of it is glued together by the author’s understanding of time and the way she moves not only the narrative forward but also the reader, placing them in a place, a time, and an atmosphere even when skipping forward:

The leaves curled and crinkled and eventually lost their fragile grip on the trees. A feeling of withering and dying seemed to pervade everything. Nothing felt fresh or colorful or innocent any more. Like the whole had been temporarily suspended in its own dusty time capsule.

While this is an outstanding debut, it should be mentioned that there are a few instances in which the author writes herself into a corner or tries to do too much. These instances come back in the last 30 pages of the book and feel like a couple of small stumbles in what is otherwise a superbly constructed narrative. Some of these loose ends are dealt with satisfactorily, and the rest are pushed under the rug with a single line. This would be a more serious problem if the actual ending of the novel wasn’t so great. When all is said and done, Tudor offers readers a tense, fast-paced, creepy thriller that, even if it doesn’t get a perfect score, puts on a superb show and, most importantly, nails the landing.

Check out an awesome Q&A with author C. J. Tudor!


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Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. His reviews can be found in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Verbicide, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, HorrorTalk, The Brooklyn Rail, and other venues. Iglesias is PANK Magazine's book reviews editor, Entropy Magazine's film/television editor, and a columnist for LitReactor and Clash Media. His novels include GutmouthHungry Darkness, and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter @Gabino_Iglesias

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