An avid book nerd, Jennifer Branton loves to share her favorite book finds with her readers.
The Waltzer Girl and Later Revelations
In her debut novel, The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor paints a vivid tale of murder and loss that spans several decades. The book is narrated in flashbacks to the mid-'80s, when the narrator, Eddie, was a twelve-year-old boy growing up with his misfit friends to an adult now- still uncovering the truth about the body of a teenage girl he and his group found in the woods back when they were kids.
Tudor excels at bringing about a page-turner of a whodunit that keeps you on your toes and guessing to the very last pages about who the characters were as children and who they have become, as well as what that change has done to affect the outcome of the story later on.
Told in both flashbacks of both childhood and present-day events, Eddie and his friends' narrative proves to be very inspired by the works of Stephen King's IT and Stand By Me. When first reading, I couldn't help but picture her inspirations in the above-mentioned novels and Googles about the author, which even pointed me to a few Tweets she directed at Stephen King himself.
To call The Chalk Man merely fan fiction though is to sell the author short. Sure she appeared to borrow some elements that inspired her characters: a group similar to The Losers, with one girl that hung about and was hinted as possibly abused by her father, bullies, a secret fort that the kids were building one summer when bullies ambushed them...and well we know the rest.
To her credit, Tudor, though using the "kids find a body" trope from Stand By Me, other details are worked into the tale, which keeps you guessing who the culprit is and why.
Early in the novel, Eddie and his friends, Metal Mickey, Fat Gav, Hoppo, and Nicky, are spending the afternoon at the fair. Eddie loses his wallet after his mother tells him he should bring a fanny pack to keep his wallet safe on the rides. When Mickey teases him about it, he hides it in the bushes but loses his wallet anyway and urges his friends to go on without him as he backtracks to the hot dog stand to try to find it.
Along the way, there is a terrible accident on a ride that injures many, especially an attractive girl that Eddie had been watching just before seeing a strange albino man in the crowd. The girl's name is Elisa, and she is pinned under rubble from the ride collapse- her face mashed and cut to the cheekbone from flying metal and her leg torn through to the point where pieces of the ride nearly amputated it.
Eddie didn't want to stay, but Elisa grasped onto his arm, and the strange albino man bids him help keep her conscious until help arrives while he off her leg with his belt. The man, Mr. Hallaran, is a new teacher coming into the school system the next semester.
While Elisa recovers, it is later discovered that Mr. Halloran visits Elisa often and begins to make paintings of her, eventually believing that he is in love with her despite the age difference and that he is a teacher at the school.
After the fair accident, things remain somewhat normal in town until the bullies, led by Mickey's older brother, Sean, attack Eddie and his friends in the woods while they are building a fort. Sean and his friends later catch Eddie and are about to pummel him when Mr. Halloran appears again and chases them off, setting up a bit of a friendship between the strange man and Eddie.
After this, Sean is discovered dead after his bike that had been missing was found at the bottom of the river. It is assumed that Sean had drowned trying to retrieve it.
Mr. Halloran and Elisa kept their relationship secret and would meet in the woods, something no one knew about until later.
Accident at the Fair, and the Taint on a Town
The Chalk Man deals in two timelines, just as IT, and the survivors of the childhood friend circle go on to uncover the mystery thirty years later in a similar fashion.
After the events of the fair and the secret romance of Mr. Halloran and Elisa begins to blossom, another foul relationship is in the making that is not discovered until the adult sequences.
Eddie's mother, a town gynecologist at a women's clinic, begins to face harassment from the Reverend, who happens to be Nicky's father. It is implied there is some sort of abuse or self-abuse, as Nicky is always covered in bruises and seen stabbing herself in the leg with a crucifix at the park in one of the childhood scenes. At a birthday party for Fat Gav, the Reverend is seen having a whispered conversation with Eddie's mother that comes to blows with her husband—presumably about the protesters that are always outside Eddie's mother's clinic. She later is mailed a fetal pig.
Weeks go by, and Mickey's brother, Sean, is found dead. At his funeral, another fight erupts between a cop claiming that his daughter, Hannah (a friend of Elisa), had been raped by Sean, was pregnant, and had come to Eddie's mother for medical help.
During these events, Elisa's body is found dismembered in the woods, surrounded by the chalk scrawling that kids in Eddie's group used to write secret messages to each other, each in his own signature color that gave clues information on where to meet up. A trail of stick people and lines leads the way to her body, found without a head and her limbs askew. Her fingers with a glittering ring rested atop a nest of leaves.
The police had no direct leads to believe that Mr. Halloran had killed his love, but he was run out of town, left his job just the same, and later killed himself in his bathtub.
Around the same time period, the Reverend was found horribly attacked and beaten with wings cut into the flesh of his back, surrounded by the same stick drawings in chalk, only this time in sexual positions and displaying nudity. The Reverend survives but is deemed a vegetable and lives until the adult timeline in a nursing home; he sometimes walks about but has a pronounced limp.
In the adult timeline, Eddie and his friends, Hoppo and Fat Gav, now wheelchair-bound after a car accident that ended his friendship with Mickey in their teen years, are reunited after receiving a note with a hanged stick person drawn in chalk. Eddie meets just once with Mickey before he is found drowned in the same location as Sean was decades before.
Where you would hope for a little more action in the adult timeline, very little happens. Eddie has a boarder named Chloe, a strange goth girl living with him in the house he grew up in and inherited. It is mentioned that Nicky sends the occasional postcard.
Besides the thirtieth anniversary of finding Elisa's body, the chalk drawings hold the adult timeline together. While the writing is still engaging, like other reviews on the internet, I agree this is where the book begins to start grasping at straws where it worked so hard to this point to spin a fascinating yarn in the child timeline.
The hint of calling Mr. Halloran The Chalk Man was coincidental and ditched now that he was dead. Nothing is really moving the story along until the reveal that the girl, Hannah, who claimed Sean raped her, was really in a relationship with the Reverend and that he wanted her to give up the baby—a baby that turned out to be the tenant of Eddie's home as an adult, the goth girl, Chloe.
Because Eddie's mother was a gynecologist, and Hannah her client, a connection is made between the hushed argument between the Reverend and Eddie's mother at the party. When Eddie's parents later discussed what had happened, Eddie's father had let it slip that the Reverend had gotten Hannah pregnant, which sent men at the local bar that were part of the congregation to attack the Reverend in the church.
What, of course, makes no sense is the stick men drawn crudely around the church, leaving it assumed maybe Nicky did that she knew? And why would Nicky mutilate herself? Was she being abused or guilty over her dad's secret? A lot didn't make sense here. Especially the bit about the cop pinning the pregnancy on the now-dead Sean because it made for a better story for the town as his relationship with Hannah drifted apart.
Finding out that Nicky was her half-sister, Chloe attempted to get to know her first, and somehow in the research of the town, found Mickey. He was writing about all the events of the town in a half attempt to get notoriety and half to purge his soul of everything that the town had taken from him. It was assumed Chloe then killed Mickey when she passed along his notes to an adult Eddie, although the paper reported that he was attacked by some teens looking to rob him.
The adult timeline also says that Chloe would visit the Reverend in the nursing home. After cutting and dying her hair in a fashion that made her look similar to Hannah around that age, the Reverend attacked her thirty years after her conception. How he was fooling the nursing home into believing that he was a vegetable all this time yet was still known to take the occasional visit outside was confusing.
The entire cast ends up in the woods again, and suddenly Eddie remembers that Hannah's father had talked about seeing a man with a limp in the woods the day Elisa died. It all comes together that the Reverend killed Elisa thinking she was Hannah due to a similar hairstyle they had both recently sported.
Hannah had gone off to raise Chloe and had become a drunk in the process. Somehow researching her roots, she found Nicky, the Reverend, and learned that Mickey was writing a tell-all about his experience. She also learns that Mickey was using the stick men drawn in chalk to manipulate everyone into coming together on the anniversary.
Now for the most confusing and lazy reveal of the entire novel: back in the kid timeline, when Eddie and his friends had found the body of Elisa, Eddie had previously known about the body and hid away some of the pieces of her in his garden, then under loose floorboards of the home where he still resides. While Eddie had taken her ring to give back to Mr. Halloran, as he truly had loved her, Eddie taking her head makes absolutely no sense.
Cutting it slack as a debut novel and taking risks, this novel tried too hard in areas to pay homage to other writings the author admired and styled herself after, making it a jarring and confusing read in the last few pages to have Eddie admirably fingering the skull of Elisa and running his fingers among the ruts in her cheekbone from the accident at the fair three decades before.
Was she going for some sort of Hannibal Lecter thing here?
An Ending Most Foul
The Chalk Man was an ambitious first novel, and I would love to see how C.J. Tudor grows as a writer. I hope she stays in the horror vein, as her descriptions of the gruesome events of this novel will make your skin crawl.
While not as graphic as some other works, just enough is peppered into the narrative (as Eddie expresses it) to stimulate some nightmare fuel.
That being said, what I don't love about this novel is that it has such a heavy reliance on associations with other similar works that it steals main plot points and storylines almost exactly. I could picture someone writing this as fan fiction on aeddit after watching the newest version of IT. Everything about the child area is The Losers, and thankfully , it didn't include a group name or a supernatural element.
Other reviews I have read said somewhat of the same thing about the navigational challenges of the novel, where the plot points often seemed far-fetched and stitched together forcefully.
The adult sequence only had two scenes, where they each discussed having a letter, and later on (like in every horror movie), the killer has been hiding out in plain sight for decades and attacks the heroes. The adult characters lacked any interaction and personality, and when the reveal that Chloe was not only Nicky's sister and that she first knew them through Mickey, it made no sense.
Even if she did look them up, so what?
The childhood timeline has its troubles with the story first heading into the direction of what happened to Elisa and then the sub-mystery of Hannah and her baby that wasn't even a big focus in that timeline—and that is disappointing when you later make the baby the thing that holds everything together.
The worst bit of writing in this whole book is at the end with Eddie, the known kleptomaniac admitting he found Elisa first and lured everyone there by making the fake chalk trails in the wrong colors after he had already stolen her head, some fingers, the ring, and limbs. Why was Eddie so obsessed with her? Just because he had seen her almost die at the Fair?
The problem The Chalk Man had is that Tudor had so many great ideas and inspirations from other writers' works and decided to use them all rather than keep some on the shelf for her next book. When you overdo it, it makes the story fitting together feel forced, and honestly, I didn't like the adult timeline of the book.
To me, everything felt too convenient from Chloe to the Reverend—who had no plausible or apparent reason to go after the group in their adult years. They didn't figure out he killed Elisa thirty years ago, mistaking her for Hannah. They had no reason to suspect him.
There is a lot I like about this book. Still, The Chalk Man bluntly retells me sections of another author's writing too many times. It also loses the plot, which disappoints me as the first half of the novel is an excellent read until Tudor doesn't seem to know where she wants to end up in the adult timeline after retelling IT and Stand By Me.
I hope this is a fluke and wish to see greatness in a later novel from the author after she has had time to find her own words.
Another Review of The Chalk Man
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Jennifer B