BOOK OF THE WEEK: THE CHALK MAN
By C.J. Tudor
New York: Crown, 2018. $27.00
C.J. Tudor is something of a Renaissance woman. Before circumstances enabled her to write full-time, she dabbled in professions that included copywriter, television host, voice-over artist, and professional dog walker. Despite whatever creative inspirations may have come from those jobs, it wasn’t until her then two-year-old daughter was gifted a tub of colored chalks that the impetus for her debut novel struck: the sinister appearance of otherwise innocuous stick-figure drawings when viewed in the dark.
The Chalk Man—which has already sold in thirty-eight territories around the world—is rooted in just such childhood frivolity. In 1986, twelve-year-old “Eddie Munster” and his loyal group of misfit friends (Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky) spend their days seeking adventure in a quiet English village while simultaneously hoping to avoid the attention of the town bullies. They’ve even come up with a secret messaging system: color-coded chalk-stick figures whose meanings are indiscernible to outsiders. But when one of those crudely drawn chalk men leads them right to the dismembered body of a local girl, their bond is forever fractured.
2016: Eddie is now an adult, still living in Anderbury, where he teaches English and shares his home with a twenty-something lodger. Chloe is the cool to Eddie’s kitsch and works in an alt clothing shop. Together, they’ve found some semblance of (platonic) normalcy regardless of appearances to the contrary. This tedium is broken when a letter arrives, followed soon by the reemergence of Mickey, who claims to have solved the murder and be writing a book about it. The contents depict a single stick figure drawn in chalk; when Eddie, Gave, and Hoppo hastily convene, each reports having received similar correspondence. Though initially suspecting it to be the work of a prankster, Eddie and the gang soon realize that something more ominous is afoot when one of their own turns up dead.
Fearing that they all might be in danger, Eddie reluctantly decides to reexamine the events of their formative years in search of answers. But some things may be best left forgotten, and his actions bring an array of long-buried secrets back to the surface—including personal politics, prejudices, and proclivities that manifested in manipulation and murder. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence and adulthood cynicism, and the often precarious line that connects the two, make for a significant-yet-subtle study in the nature of dualities. Indeed, you cannot read this book without being reminded of the gray areas that exist between right and wrong, or the inevitable truth that evil often trumps goodness, sometimes in the broad light of day.
The narrative unfolds in chapters that alternate between past and present (which is appropriate, given the aforementioned dualities). While this is hardly a new construct, Tudor employs it masterfully, simultaneously dangling cliffhangers while easing the tension with expository passages that are as engaging as they are enlightening. Such back-and-forth also allows for organic character development, and is illustrative of who Eddie and Company were, and how what they experienced has shaped who they’ve become. The nostalgia factor is high, too, but seldom strays toward sentimentality; instead, it leaves you longing for the days when you could disappear outside to play in the woods without fear of adult interference or susceptibility to the doldrums of the digital age.
Though The Chalk Man is reminiscent of Stephen King’s earlier repertoire (think It crossed with Stand by Me), it’s no retread. Rather, C.J. Tudor has proffered a tale that’s distinct in voice and vision, and that concerns itself with horrors of an entirely human kind. Despite the proliferation of chalk throughout, this story will leave an indelible mark in the minds of readers—and the ending is one you just may lose your head over.—John B. Valeri