Patrick Briotte- Staff Writer
When it comes to a good book, there are many types that keep a reader invested. Sometimes stories focus on the themes of adventure and camaraderie. Other novels can base the story in something more gritty and down- to-earth, such as a good mystery or noir story. One can also never forget the appeal of fantasy or science fiction, where the author can take the reader by the hand to a world beyond their wildest imagination.
What if something else is desired to really grab attention? What if there is a desire for something that fills the reader with suspense and dread, but also makes one want to grip each page with a shaking hand of anticipation as they wonder what happens next?
Paul Cornell answers this question with his novel “Chalk.” The story follows the life of Andrew Waggoner, who spends most of his days in highschool attempting to pass through each day without drawing unwanted attention to himself. Along with his social clique of friends, Andrew finds himself at the mercy of a gang of bullies lead by a cruel young man named Drake. The bullying antics go too far during one Halloween dance, when Drake decides he wants to get more hands-on against his victim, causing great mental and physical harm to Andrew.
That night, something changed in Andrew’s life as his suffering gains the attention of something otherworldly. It is old, magical, dangerous, and very familiar looking. It is at this moment that Andrew quite literally meets himself, a version that is filled with the confidence that he himself has always craved in life. This double, nicknamed “Waggoner” by Andrew, is willing to help his meeker self seek the revenge that has so long eluded him.
Things take a dark twist when it comes to light that Waggoner has some very lofty ambitions of his own, including goals that could threaten the entirety of the world. Realizing how serious the situation has become, Andrew must decide exactly what lengths he is willing to go to in order to bring himself together again.
One of the most incredibly poignent things that can be said about this novel is how Paul Cornell understands what it means to go through indescribable trauma and anguish. Cornell portays the line of reasoning that a tormented mind would go through. The plot itself is centered around Andrew’s desperation to move through all of his struggles despite having no clear direction to do so. What Waggoner’s presence in the story is meant to represent is the embodiment of vengeance as perceived by the human mind.
For anyone who has ever been bullied or abused, there are often daydreams or imaginings of a more perfect and confident version of themselves who can handle the situation with ease and enact punishment on those who have wronged them. It is playing with the theme of ‘What if someone suddenly did have that kind of power in the real world?’ which is what makes the narrative so compelling. It is a unique twist on a character battling inner demons because in this scenario, Andrew is literally battling the most negative incarnation of himself. The idea that he is a protagonist that has fleshed out and understandible motivations make him incredibly three-dimensional. Andrew himself is not meant to be a classically portrayed heroic character, but a human one.
Perhaps the greatest strength of “Chalk” is in how the characters are treated. Everyone, from Andrew to Drake, are treated as human beings. The only classic ‘antagonist’ is Waggoner himself, born from a twisted desire from Andrew to finally force his way into a position of power. Lingering damage that a person can go through in life, as exemplified by the relationship between Andrew and Drake, can follow a youth well into their adult life. Like the story setting itself, these events are in the past where events like those portrayed can do the most damage.
‘Chalk’ carries a message that lessons can be learned from the past and brought into the present day, specifically how we deal with trauma and how it can define our behavior if we let it. The past is there to be remembered and the future is unknown, but today is meant to be lived.