At the beginning, I was gripped by The Chalk Man, the author’s debut novel, when the discovery of a murder victim is just the first of many mysterious and creepy happenings in the small English tourist town of Alderbury. Author CJ Tudor has long been a fan of Stephen King’s work and has said that while “the book is, in some ways, my homage to King, it is also very much about my own adolescence, growing up in the 80s” (source).
This comes through as the tale is principally told by Ed Adams, aged 12, and his friends, Metal Mickey, Fat Gav, Hoppo and the sole girl, Nicky. Chapters alternate between Ed’s 12 year old self and his current life as a 42 year old teacher. Ed knows he’s not quite like his friends as his mother is a doctor and his father a freelance writer and they live in a ramshackle Victorian house that is always in the process of being renovated. He wishes his Dad had a ‘normal’ job and that his mother didn’t work such long hours.
Ed meets a new teacher, Mr Halloran, in appalling circumstances, when a girl is badly injured on a fairground ride and he gets her to Ed with first aid. Mr Halloran is an albino and soon earns the nickname The Chalk Man. It is he who suggests the kids use a secret code to communicate with each other using chalk which Ed ‘discovered’ as an unopened and anonymous present at Fat Gav’s birthday party. One can recognise the teenage excitement of secret communications that no-one else understands, drawing chalk figures on each other’s driveways or in the playground where they hang out.
Then, all in this same year, Mickey’s brother Sean drowns in the local river and there is a fight at his funeral which is just surreal and unbelievable. Added to this Nicky’s father, the local vicar, leads protesters at Ed’s mother’s clinic and subsequently he is attacked leaving him brain damaged and confined to a nursing home. Mickey withdraws from his friends; Nicky moves away to live with her mother, who her father had told her was dead. As a device for breaking up the group of kids this seems somewhat forced.
The teenage Ed suffers from night terrors and dreams as Sean seems to come back to haunt him and as the anniversary of the murder approaches he begins to experience these again, triggered by a letter with the familiar chalk man figures. All the old gang have received similar letters and, after years of no contact, Mickey reappears talking about writing a book about the murder and the chalk man.
This is the point where I think CJ Tudor literally lost the plot. What should be a series of startling twists and the final denouement were just too contrived for me to continue to suspend my disbelief and the magic spell of the book was broken.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 7
Distributed by: Penguin Australia
Released: January 2018
RRP: $32.99 trade paperback