Yesterday saw the ebook launch of Paul Cornell's latest novel Chalk (the paperback version of the book is published next month). And in true Ginger Nuts of Horror style, we have two reviews to celebrate the launch of the book, one from myself and one from our regular contributor Tony Jones.
Is this a meeting of minds or a case of one of us being wrong, read on to find out what we both thought of the book....
Jim Mcleod's Review of Chalk
Chalk marks somewhat of a departure for author Paul Cornell, who is best known for his series of London based urban fantasy police procedurals, his work on Dr Who, Chalk makes a sharp left turn into a dark and gritty horror realism with this brutal tale of revenge and retribution.
Set in the not too distant past of a Thatcherite United Kingdom Chalk's unreliable narrator and protagonist Andrew Waggoner recounts his story of his unhappy time at school and the sadistic event that set him on a path of revenge that will haunt him for the rest of his days.
Chalk is not an easy read; it is an unrelenting read, that perfectly captures the feel of despair and unhappiness that was rife in the UK at the time of Thatcher's Britain. Cornell's clever use of pop culture references from the period, such mentions of Dutch Elm disease, Rentaghost and that infamous "rubber johnny myth" of the era lend the book a sense of authenticity of time and place that could only have come from someone who grew up in the era. The use of these dark days as a backdrop to Waggoner's story is an inspired move, as Waggoner's journey of revenge mirrors so much of the mentality of the time. The me, me generation that Thatcher inspired, where you grabbed what you want regardless of who you hurt along the way, is a perfect metaphor for Waggoner and his drive to get revenge on those who wronged him.
Cornell's use of number on hits from the UK charts as the novel's time signature is also a nice touch, as his use of music and musical tribes to mirror the internal struggle that Waggoner is going through. He his desperate to like the more, for want of a better word "manly" music such as The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers, but he is drawn to the more poppier side of the charts, which highlights the confusion and need to be accepted that so many of us went through at that age.
Chalk also draws on the cultural zeitgeist of the 80's in a more subtle way, the private school that Waggoner attends is a crumbling institution, archaic and uncompromising, you cannot help but be reminded of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall". The teachers that walk the halls have been pulled straight out of a nightmarish vision of Grange Hill. Cornell vision of life in a 1980s school is a harsh and realistic portrayal, with subtle nuances rubbing shoulders with major themes such as class division to paint a grim picture of life in the eighties for a teenage boy.
Cornell's scene setting and anchoring the narrative in a realistic depiction of the UK, is all well and good, but the actual story itself needs to live up to the wonderfully Beige canvas to which he pins the narrative onto. Chalk's narrative lives up to this admirably, aided in the main by the twisted and unreliable narration from Waggoner. Cornell keeps the reader guessing as to what is actually happening, are we in Fight Club territory or have we slipped down the rabbit hole into a world populated by a primal magic of revenge. Just when you think you have a grip on the truth, Cornell pulls the rug from under you and makes you reevaluate the situation. This ambitious use of ambiguity is handled very well, and the way in which Cornell uses this to highlight the ambiguity of Waggoners actions is a smart touch.
The meeting of the drab reality of era is counterpointed perfectly with Cornell peppering the story with a genuinely disturbing use of a wild and untamed primal magic. Whether or not this is real or just a hallucination from Waggoner's mind, well that's something that you have to find out for yourself, suffice to say the way in which it evades the "reality of the story " is chilling to the extreme.
Chalk is a savage and harrowing, yet moving read, Cornell never shuns from dealing with the brutal nature of bullying and the neverending cycle of the bully and the bullied, and skillfully sways the reader's feelings towards Waggoner from sympathetic to disgust at what he does. Chalk is an uncompromising novel, the flourishes of cruel and barbaric violence inflicted on Waggoner and others are truly shocking, thanks to the almost clinical and matter of fact way in which they are described adds to their shock value.
It may only just be March but Chalk is already shaping up to be one of the books of the year. Challenging, profoundly disturbing and unwavering in its vision Chalk is a hugely evocative novel, one that dares to something original with the well-worn story of revenge.
Tony Jones' Review of Chalk
“Andrew Waggoner has a secret he will tell no one, except one person… himself…”
The advance whispers for “Chalk” were very pretty great and so I was delighted to find that this complex and manipulative tale of bullying set in a grim and drab version of Thatcher’s Britain really merited the hype. Everything about this very clever and challenging novel impressed me and I sped through it in a couple of very enjoyable evenings.
I think it’s important not to give too much away about the plot as it will spoil a few of the tasty twists which are boomeranged along the way. Set over the course of a school year, bullying is the constant theme which overshadows this 1982 set novel and much of it is pretty nasty and very realistic. You can feel the punches and kicks being delivered. Set in a small town in the Midlands where rural children are bussed to school, Andrew Waggoner is singled out and repeatedly bullied by five other boys. This is nasty, savage and very physical. Worse is to come though, after a school disco Andrew is physically disfigured after being tortured and this horrific episode leads the vulnerable teenager on a dark, dark path of revenge.
The novel then charts what happens to Andrew over the subsequent year. Written in the first person, narrated from some point in the future, Andrew is the classic unreliable narrator. You really cannot trust a word he says as he describes the crumbling school, his friends, girls, his squabbling parents and the weird episodes that evolve into near supernatural, almost hallucinogenic, episodes. What is real and what is not? It becomes increasingly difficult to tell….
There are brief, almost breath-taking spurts of violence which will make you wince, mainly because they are described through the matter-of-fact voice of Andrew. My favourite being the sports teacher losing an eye through a scissor kick in a football match that may, or may not have been intentional with the children staring at the spot where the eye dropped on the grass before being scooped up. The violence between the teenage boys is vividly described and one almost sees the playground as some sort of battleground.
As I grew up in rural Scotland and took the bus to school I can vouch for the accuracy of the bullying which takes place on the journey to and from school when some children are at their most vulnerable. And for Andrew Waggoner all this goes full circle as he nastily picks on a girl two years younger than him until he has almost beaten her spirit into the ground. The victim becomes the bully and it makes for uncomfortable reading.
The novel is set in Thatcher’s Britain, but it is music that sets the scene rather than politics. I remember this well from my own childhood: the importance of the No 1 single and the excitement of TV shows like Top of the Pops. Interestingly enough music helps explore identify in the novel, Andrew does not really know what he likes and the bullies like punkier music such as The Jam and The Stiff Little Fingers. However, there is a girl he is attracted to, who loves her chart music and he just does not know what to say to her. So this is all examined through very realistic teen angst and the inability to communicate.
Of course behind all of this Andrew Waggoner has a dark secret, something he can tell no one and via this the terrific novel goes full circle. So I haven’t said much about horror in this review, however, it’s always present on a subliminal level as Andrew embarks on his own journey into increasing darkness.
Along the way there are many terrific touches. It’s a private school, but even though it seems pretty grotty Andrew’s parents struggle to pay the fees and annually hope their son will win a prize which will see his fees paid for the following year, he never does, and this just adds to his feeling of uselessness and failure. The teachers and headmaster are vividly drawn through the eyes of this very troubled teenage boy and the school itself becomes alive and some of the set pieces with the bullies are stunningly vicious. Are they fourteen year olds or monsters?
This was a terrific, challenging and very original novel which will keep you both gripped and guessing until the last page. And what a brilliantly understated last page it has. Bullying is rife in high schools and these days we hear much about the impact of social media bullying, but what happened here in 1982 was much, much worse. Scars which Paul Cornell has built a top notch psychological horror novel around. Highly recommended.
Paul Cornell plumbs the depths of magic and despair in Chalk, a brutal exploration of bullying in Margaret Thatcher's England.
Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with his fellow losers at school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies — led by Drake — will pass him by in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more; something unforgivable; something unthinkable.
Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.
In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.