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 to in that spans several decades. Narrated in flashbacks to the mid 80's when the narrator, Eddie was a twelve year old boy growing up with his misfit friends to an adult now- still uncovering the truth of the 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- and what that change has done to affect the outcome of the story later on.
Told in both flashbacks of the childhood and present day events, the narrative of Eddie and his friend's 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 and Googles about the author, 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 that was hinted was possibly abused by her father, bullies, a secret fort that the kids were building one summer when they were ambushed by bullies...and well we know the rest.
To her credit, Tudor, though using the kids find a body thing as well 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 and Eddie, loses his wallet after his mother had told 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 rumble from the ride collapse- her face mashed and cut to the cheekbone from flying metal and her leg torn through to the point where it was nearly amputated by pieces of the ride.
Eddie didn't want to stay but Elisa grasped onto his arm, and the strange albino man bids him to help keep her conscious until help arrives and ties 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 some what normal in town until the bullies, lead by Mickey's older brother, Sean attack Eddie and his friends in the woods 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.
Then Sean is found dead after his bike that had been missing was found in the bottom of the river and it was assumed that Sean had drown trying to retrieve it.
Mr Halloran and Elisa, kept their relationship secret and would meet in the woods, a fact that no one knew about until later.
Accident at the Fair, and the Taint on a Town
The Chalk Man deals in two time lines, just as IT, and the survivors of the kid years go on to uncover the mystery thirty years later in 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 that comes to blows from Eddie's father- presumably about the protesters that are always outside her clinic and she later is mailed a fetal pig.
Weeks go by and Mickey's brother, Sean is found dead and at his funeral another fight erupts between a cop claiming that his daughter, Hannah, a friend of Elisa, had been raped by Sean and was pregnant and had come to Eddie's mother to seek medical help.
In the mist of 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 lead 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 and left his job just the same and later killed himself in his bathtub.
Around the same time span, 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 time line, Eddie and his friends, Hoppo and Fat Gav, who is now wheelchair bound after a car accident that ended his friendship with Mickey in the teen years, are reunited after all receiving a note with a stick person being hung 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 time line, very little happens. Eddie has a boarder named Chloe, a strange goth girl that lives with him in the house that he grew up in and inherited. Nicky is mentioned that she sends the occasional postcard.
Other than the thirty year anniversary of finding Elisa's body and the chalk drawings hold the adult time line 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 at 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 that claimed she was raped by Sean 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, that made the connection of the hushed argument between the Reverend and Eddie's mother at the party, and 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 his whole men at the local bar that were part of the congregation to attach 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 other that Nicky was her half sister, Chloe attempted to get to know her first, and somehow in the research of the town, found Mickey who 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 and 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 and 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 following 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 that Elisa had died and it came 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 that Mickey was writing a tell all about his experience and that it was Mickey that was using the stick men drawn in chalk to manipulate everyone into coming together on the anniversary.
Then 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- why Eddie would have taken her head makes absolutely no sense.
Cutting it slack as a debut novel and taking risks- this novel tried to 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 its expressed by Eddie to stimulate some nightmare fuel.
That being said, what I don't love about this novel is The Chalk Man having such a heavy reliance on associations with other similar works that it steals main plot points and story lines almost to a T. I could picture someone writing this as fan fiction on a Reddit after watching the newest version of IT as everything about the child area is The Losers, and thankfully 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 seemed often far fetched and stitched together forcefully.
The adult sequence only really had two scenes, where they each discussed having a letter, and later on when like 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 own 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 really 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 with 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 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 reason to go after the group in their adult years because what? 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, but too many times does The Chalk Man bluntly retell me sections of another author's writing or lose the plot and that disappoints me as the first half of the novel is a great 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 that this is a fluke and to see greatness in a later novel from the author after she has had time to find her own words.
© 2018 Jennifer B