In her debut novel, Jackal, Erin E. Adams creates a horror story inspired by a tragically familiar and yet neglected issue in America—the epidemic of disappearing Black girls—and authorities’ and media’s lack of concern or coverage. The best social horror stories allow the inherent darkness of the social phenomenon at their hearts to show itself, and Jackal does just that.
In the hometown she didn’t want to return to, after a broken engagement she won’t discuss, by a forest she never wanted to see again, Liz Rocher lost sight of her best friend’s daughter Caroline for just a minute before she realized something was wrong.
Liz, the daughter of a Haitian immigrant single mother, grew up in Johnstown, PA, a town where the KKK still left recruitment flyers in her neighborhood. Liz is all too aware of what can happen to a young girl like Caroline in the nearby stretch of Appalachian forest where she disappeared. Fifteen years earlier, Liz’s high school classmate Keisha was dragged away from these same woods. Keisha’s body would be found later, heart missing, with her ribs cracked open as if by a large animal. The attack echoed an urban legend passed around by kids in the area about a dangerous pair living in the woods.
A man and his shadow live in the trees.
When they walk in time, both are pleased.
If one calls your name, or the other tempts you off the path,
You must ignore both, or face their wrath.
The legend of being killed in the woods has been whispered about in Johnstown for decades, but only Liz and other Black residents are willing to acknowledge that there is a killer on the loose specifically targeting Black girls. Such an oversight would almost certainly require complicity from local authorities. In Keisha’s case, police seem to rule out foul play too easily. The official results of their investigation imply parental negligence and “animal activity” killed her. After Caroline disappears, Liz finds the police once again taking their time searching, and using fewer resources than they’d use if a white girl went missing. Liz sets off to investigate Caroline’s kidnapping herself to bring home her best friend’s child before it’s too late.
Racial tension is a significant reason Liz moved to New York City. Johnstown’s racist history still poisoning the present is a prominent theme in the novel. The most privileged locals created economic systems that reinforced their desired social hierarchy via controlling who is allowed to own wealth, especially in the form of property. So it’s fitting when Liz explains, “Johnstown isn’t as much white as it is segregated. Not officially, just in historical ways. Like by postal code.” Johnstown was built on a mountain. The elevation incline of the city reflects the stratification of its class structure, with richer, whiter neighborhoods at higher elevations, and more humble, blacker neighborhoods at the base of the mountain. An author’s note at the end of the novel describes how in 1899, a real-life flood once wiped out mountain residents of the lower elevations of Johnstown. A dam broke after robber barons chose to dangerously alter the dam structure so that their personal carriages could move more easily.
The matter-of-factness and lived-in honesty with which Adams writes about bigotry is refreshing. Although today, we can compare Jackal to works like Get Out and Lovecraft Country, it was only relatively recently that stories written from an alternative point of view to colonizer and colonizer-descendant narratives would be labeled “unrelatable” to (white) audiences. A decade ago, this novel’s heroine might’ve been dismissed as unlikable for refusing to indulge questions that ignore racial power dynamics, like when a white character asks Liz, “What makes you think your suffering matters more than anyone else’s?”
Characters’ survival strategies for living under threat of real or perceived danger are deployed everywhere in the novel. Liz has learned from her strict mother how to be seen as good, respectable, educated, and tolerable by those who have the power to do her harm. We follow Liz’s anxious thoughts, her careful assessments of whether the town folk could be threats to her and Caroline’s safety. Caroline’s own uncle, who is a white cop, once said he believed Black people couldn’t feel pain. Did he really change his view after his sister married a Black man? Though Liz finds some allies in the community and a former schoolmate, suspicion is never far behind. As a result, for much of the novel, we’re trapped in Liz’s head–which allows us to experience things as she does. As events unfold, there are clashes between her emotional experiences and others’, which further isolate her.
Jackal’s chapters feature multiple, distinct storytelling voices that would be at home in a stage play—appropriate for a writer of Adams’s background as a classically trained theater actor and playwright. While we see most of the story through Liz’s point of view, a mysterious narrator reveals other events that broaden the context of Liz’s hunt for Caroline and her kidnapper. Still other perspectives on the many missing Johnstown girls come from brief clips of printed materials, including newspaper reports on the murders. Through their formal, authoritative tone, they give us the official account of the girls’ disappearances as told by law enforcement and media. The victims are done yet another injustice when these articles deflect responsibility for their deaths at the victims’ families.
After social power dynamics and cultural specificity in Johnstown are set up by the first half of the novel, Jackal is free to pace faster and dig deeper into more traditional horror genre elements in the second half, where the focus tips toward its central mystery: is there a literal monster in the woods? That transition isn’t a flaw, however, as generational racism was always the real villain of the story. As Liz observes, “If there’s one thing fear can do, it’s make a beast out of a shadow. It turns us all into monsters.”
by Erin E. Adams
Published October 4, 2022