Review: The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

Over the course of three novels, C.J. Tudor has established herself as a master practitioner of the supernatural suspense novel — and her latest, “The Burning Girls,” is exactly that, a breakneck page-turner, tinged with horror, wrapped up in family drama.

The town of Chapel Croft has a history of tragedy. Five hundred years ago, eight protestant martyrs were burned at the stake. Thirty years ago, two teenage girls vanished without a trace. And two months ago, the vicar of the local parish killed himself for reasons unknown.

The vicar’s replacement is Jack Brooks, single mother of fourteen-year-old daughter Flo — burdened by her own traumatic past. Chapel Croft, she hopes, offers the chance of a fresh start, and an opportunity to escape it. But that seems unlikely from the start, when an old exorcism kit and a note quoting scripture is left for Jack as a welcoming present. Never mind the stick dolls scattered around the town in remembrance of the burning girls from its past. Or the strange sightings in the decrepit chapel…

As Jack and Flo install themselves within the close-knit community, they begin probing and untangling the mysteries of the town’s dark legacy, which leads to dire consequences. Tudor loves playing with the conventional horror tropes, and slicing them down to their purest form. While the ingredients might be familiar, she has a habit of blending them into something distinctly her own.

Published: 19 January 2021
ISBN: 9780241371312
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 400
RRP: $32.99

Review: The Taking of Annie Thorne (The Hiding Place) by C.J. Tudor

9781405930970.jpgWith The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor has crafted a slick, razor-sharp novel of psychological suspense, which dangled the possibility of a supernatural influence on the events that transpired sparingly enough to keep the story rooted in reality. Her sophomore novel, The Taking of Annie Thorne, suffuses classic Stephen King horror with small town noir. It’s a creepy, propulsive crime novel that whisks readers into a nightmare realm; a tiny mining village called Arnhill, where children have demonstrated a tendency to disappear, then return, but different somehow, not quite themselves; dehumanised.

Published as The Hiding Place in the United States, Tudor’s second novel opens with two Arnhill cops navigating the scene of a horrific murder-suicide. A local, respected teacher has killed her boy, then herself, smearing “NOT MY SON” in blood on the wall. Which doesn’t stop Joseph Thorne — who called Arnhill home as a child — taking up residence in the cottage. Not that he can afford to be selective. Joe’s got the kind of gambling debt that could cripple a man — seriously, the loan shark he owes money to has a female enforcer who takes pleasure in dishing out pain — so the cheap rent works in his favour.

The catalyst for Joe’s return was a mysterious email that read,  “I know what happened to your sister. It’s happening again.” The “it” in question was the murder-suicide at his new abode. Years back, when Joseph was a teenager, his sister Annie vanished  while Joe and his pals explored a mineshaft that has always been the source of spine-tingling ghost stories. When Annie returned, she wasn’t the same. She looked identical to the sweet, doll-carrying girl who disappeared into the darkness; but there was toxicity coursing through her veins. The girl who returned was not the same, appearances be damned.

The Taking of Annie Thorne flits back and forth between events of the present day, and the traumatic circumstances of Annie’s disappearance and return. Joe is an interesting narrator; not particularly likable, extremely flawed, yet we root for him because what happened to his sister — this undefinable, unexplainable thing — has haunted Joe his whole life. It has followed him everywhere. It has damaged him, tormented him. We want to see it exorcised.

The plot thrums, the pace is frantic, and its climax is pitch-perfect and bloody. Tudor has embraced the “heir to Stephen King’ tag she established following the publication of The Chalk Man, and it’s earned. I feel like King would’ve marinated a little more on certain elements of this tale; controlled the pace, let the creepy vibe really settle into the readers’ bones. Delved a little more deeply into the townspeople; explored the intervening years, and perhaps extrapolated on the mysterious, dark force possessing Arnhill. The Taking of Annie Thorne is a helter-skelter, race-to-the-finish kind of horror novel, which makes it brilliantly readable — a one-sitting binge-read, if you’re so inclined — which distinguishes it from the grandmaster’s work.  Like its predecessor, The Taking of Annie Thorne is immensely enjoyable.

ISBN: 9780718187460
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 21-Feb-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

9780718187446 (1)With The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor has crafted a slick, razor-sharp novel of psychological suspense, which dangles the possibility of a supernatural influence on events sparingly enough to keep the story rooted in reality. This is a tense, cleverly-constructed thriller, and debut author Tudor deftly unspools the harsh realities of stale, childhood friendships, humankind’s capacity for debauchery, and the pain of confronting the past, even as she unravels her tautly-plotted mystery. The Chalk Man is book that will appeal as much to readers of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train as it will Stephen King enthusiasts looking for something to rival Misery, and provides some not-so-subtle winks at the grand-master’s It.

It opens in 1986, when Eddie Adams, a seemingly average twelve-year-old, who hangs out with his mates (using chalk messages as secret codes), does his best to outrun local bullies, and stay out of the lives of his parents (his mother is an abortion provider, and her father is a struggling freelance writer) finds the decapitated and dismembered body of a local girl. In the current day, 2016, Eddie is now an insular school teacher, who is contacted by someone from his past claiming he knows who really killed the girl. This alone might not be enough to instigate a personal crusade, but when chalk, and chalk symbols, start appearing around the quiet village Eddie has never moved away from, it’s clear someone has an agenda.

The Chalk Man flits between events in these timelines, exposing how Eddie’s various relationships have changed, painting a portrait of a man with secrets of his own, even as he seeks the the truth about what happened two decades ago. These chapters — short and sharp, which always end on cliffhangers — build momentum, and a propulsive page-turnability veteran suspense writers will envy. Readers will question the motives — even the sanity — of every character who appears in these pages, and that includes Eddie. Vitally, Tudor doesn’t attempt too many genre hijinks or red-herrings to bolster her narrative; her vision is clear, her storytelling is crystalline. The Chalk Man is tour de force, a blistering novel of psychological terror and menace.

ISBN: 9780718187446
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 11-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom