Black Chalk by Christopher Yates


Truth or Dare is a rite of passage. Playing the game in the basements of our parents houses, we dared each other to kiss in front of us or to remove a piece of clothing. We tried to make each other show affection for the opposite sex, doing our best to embarrass each other. But this is just a game and generally we grow out of it, leaving it behind like the childish act that it is. In Christopher Yates’ debut novel, a group of students at an English university decide to pay a similar game of risk and consequences. Starting simply as a way to embarrass each other, The Game quickly turns dastardly and even deadly.

Chadwick Theodore Mason is an American student at Oxford University. Sticking out like a sore thumb, he does his best to try to fit in immediately. He meets an English fellow named Joylon (pronounced like Julian) his first week and the two become fast friends. During the first week of school they walk the campus in search of a club to join. After blowing off Sock Soc, a society dedicated to you guessed it, socks, they stumble upon Game Soc. Manned by three wordless, stoic men, Game Soc presents its group as a society for playing games; whatever kind of games it’s members desire. Chad, Jolyon and their friend Jack quickly decide on this game, a more adult version of Truth or Dare. They decide that the consequences of the game should be decided by it’s members and that there should be a cash prize. They decided that each member should put up $1000 GBP, with Game Soc putting up another $4000 for a total of $10,000 in prize money that should go to the winner of the game. The only way to lose and get kicked out of the game is refusal to do the consequences when the game warrants them. At first they start off really petty, simple annoyances of other people. But as the game progresses, the challenges get more and more personal and members of The Game start wanting to quit, even refusing to complete the tasks. The Game becomes a psychological test of will, rather than a game of fun and leisure.

Black Chalk doesn’t have any glaring problems as a book, the story is just not that compelling. Acclaimed and described as a psychological thriller, none of what takes place in the book is particularly thrilling or gripping. The prospect of the game that Chad and Jolyon develop is one that sounds like it might be pretty devious, but it just ends up with one friend deliberately attacking another. Although it looks as though it was designed that way, it doesn’t make for page turner. Yates’ prose and style of writing was on point however. The story takes place split up between the past and present. In the past we have the story of the game and it’s outcome; the present is one of the game’s players lamenting on the outcome of the game and how it affected their life. Both story streams are written well, but again it lacks that shocking punch that could have lifted it from a mediocre thriller to a outstanding, shocking story worthy of praise among a group of friends.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 – While Yates’ writing is not inherently bad, Black Chalk just misses the mark when it comes to being a psychological thriller. Nothing about The Game that is played makes it thrilling or compelling enough to be a page turner. What could have been a game that college students play by the masses will likely just be forgotten.

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