‘One game. Six students. Five survivors.’ So goes Black Chalk’s tagline. In this psychological thriller that takes place between New York and Oxford University, Christopher J. Yates has crafted a creepingly addictive novel.
It starts with Game Soc, an extra-curricular society at Oxford that will fund games students bring to them that intrigue them. The society is shrouded in secrecy, run by three men only recognised as Tallest, Middle and Shortest. The idea that the six students have involves dares, increasing in levels of embarrassment and depravity as the game goes on.
It sounds like a basic premise. What brings Black Chalk up a level in terms of literary importance is the multiple levels through which the story unfolds. Beginning with a (to begin with) anonymous narrator, years after their stint at university, the reader is shown the borderline OCD life of a hermit in New York. He was one of the players, a long time ago.
Switching between present tense paranoia and third-person accounts of the past, the novel divulges important information almost painfully slowly. The reader will want to know everything immediately, but Yates refuses to give in. This technique pays off, and combined with the realism of the game and characters, the novel works incredibly well.
It almost goes without saying that fans of The Secret History by Donna Tartt will find much to enjoy here. Black Chalk reads as a more paranoid, fast-paced version of that, with all the trappings of student life at one of the most highly regarded institutions in the world captured alongside the unsettling game.
Relationships unfold realistically, and the thought that’s gone into the strategies involved in the game and the anonymous narrator’s way of living is almost scary. He’s such an odd character, but somehow Yates manages to make him relatable, perhaps through empathy. Genuinely, his present-day lifestyle is almost scary, and that his condition is never fully explained only makes it more creepy.
Black Chalk is a great psychological thriller, and unlike many thrillers, holds genuine literary merit. At times the book reminded me of Mark Z. Danielewski’s infamous House of Leaves, with the switching of narrator, time, and form of communication (including poetry, emails, diary entries and a third-person novel). As a debut novel this is astounding. A book so complex, real and frightening shows great promise for Yates’s future work.