Chalk: proving nostalgia isn’t always comforting

Book cover: Chalk - Paul CornellAndrew Waggoner is one of the favourite victims of five brutal boys at school. When their hazing becomes torture one Hallowe’en, Waggoner’s pain and outrage opens the door to ancient forces that promise him revenge. But the ghosts of generations past also have their own wrongs to right…

There are some books that you read recognising the craft that has gone into them; recognising the truth at the heart of them; but you’re nothing but glad when they’re finally over. Books that you read in small clutches of pages, not really comfortable staying with them for too long at a time. Books that you can’t wait to put behind you and move on.

Chalk is one of the least pleasant reads I’ve had in an awfully long time. I’d been actively avoiding it in spite of how much I love Cornell’s Lychford novellas; but as it was a Subjective Chaos nominee (and I’m not prepared to bow out of the Fantasy category) it was a must-read. However, this would have been a DNF for me left to my own devices (if I’d ever actually started it at all).

Don’t get me wrong. It’s tremendous. The controlled execution of its relentless gaze into the abyss are precisely why I struggled to read it. It’s horrifying, rooted in the awful things that we do to one another and the ways in which violence bends both victim and aggressor. Paul Cornell is at his best when he interweaves the everyday with the fantastic, and in Chalk the lines between mundane horror and otherworldly fantasy are so blurred it feels like the unholy child of Alan Garner and Stephen King.

Chalk is a study in bullying and the bullied, the effects abuse has on its victims. The passages describing what is done to Andrew (not just the assault in the copse) left me physically sick with its relentless challenge to my belief in the general decency of human beings. There’s little of it on display here – Andrew’s revenge is every bit as awful as what is done to him – and in spite of the supernatural elements, it’s all horribly believable.

Yet Andrew tells us early that he is a liar, a theme that recurs when he begins to write fiction, struggling to express truths in a way that can be believed by his readers. When his alter-ego Waggoner appears and takes control of situations, behaving in ways that Andrew would never imagine, it occurred to me to wonder whether I should read this literally. After all, nobody else can see Waggoner.

However, it was still late in the proceedings (specifically, in the New Forest; that almost magical lull in the narrative that captures the way in which summer holidays made anything possible, opened up possibilities outside the narrow confines of school-yard relationships) where it occurred to me to wonder whether anything was true. Did Drake and his cohorts really commit unspeakable violence or – given he is our self-declared unreliable narrator – did he invent this as a physical expression of the humiliation they made him feel? Or is this one more unpalatable truth he knows will never be believed?

It doesn’t really matter. In the end, this is a teenage boy wrestling his despair, his rage at his classmates, and his betrayal by the adults who stand by and let such things happen (that terrible passage in which Mr Land effectively blames Waggoner for not standing up for himself; the confrontation with a confused Mr Rove as matters come to a head – you made it possible for this happen). It’s also – inevitably, but delightfully handled – a boy confused by his first feelings for a girl he can never possibly go out with, a girl who – wonderfully – has her own brand of magic.

Angie’s belief in the power of the Number One single is a ray of light in the otherwise pitch black proceedings. She believes it predicts coming events; she’s certain she can harness its power to cast spells that influence outcomes. Her careful application of a hit single stops Andrew’s harassment of a schoolmate (nothing like a suggestion of romantic interest to reform a teenage boy) and opens up a host of new possibilities that threaten the dark plans of the past.

Chalk is a powerful, upsetting read, well worth your time if you have the stomach for it. It keenly recalls teenage hopes, fears and humiliations; and however difficult a read I found it, I have nothing but admiration for it.