"Jackal" by Erin E. Adams
There’s something rotten in the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Something dark and evil in the woods. It’s taking children and young adults from their homes. Girls — Black girls, specifically. It’s taking their lives. It’s taking their hearts.
Is this dark, evil thing a man? Or is it something else? Something older, more feral, and more insubstantial than any animal?
These are the questions Liz Rocher must answer during a rare visit home for her best friend Mel’s wedding, when Mel’s biracial daughter Caroline vanishes seemingly without a trace. In her search for the missing girl, Liz must face not only the deep-seated history of racial tension and violence in her hometown, but also her own self-repressed memories of a dark night in the woods, when she may or may not have come face to face with the very predator she seeks to expose.
This mystery unfolds with all the twists, turns, red herrings, and genuine surprises employed by a master of the genre, so it might surprise some to learn Jackal (published on October 4, 2022 via Bantam) is the debut novel from Erin E. Adams. No doubt the author’s background in playwriting and acting taught her a thing or two about the mechanics of plot and effectively moving a story along, as Adams has crafted a bonafide page-turner, a novel even the most casual of readers will neither want to nor be able to put down.
But Adams’s talents go beyond the ability to construct a whodunnit thriller on par with the works of Agatha Christie. Jackal is a horror novel as well, utilizing our collective terror of the unknown wilds of the wilderness as its primary engine of fear. Adams’ prose is fairly terse overall, but she lets her literary muscles really flex when it comes to chilling and unnerving the reader, trading in haunting atmosphere and visceral gore as needed. Her scares as such work both on a surface and primal level.
Like the best horror stories, however, Adams’s narrative is at its most terrifying on a thematic level. The killings at the center of her novel are quickly called out for what they are — the deliberate destruction of young, Black female bodies, a bald fact the larger, predominately white community refuses to see. Murders have become accidents, disappearances with evidence of foul play are nothing more than runaway cases, innocent children are relabeled as drug addicts and whores. Of course, such hatred is a mask for internalized white fears and a secret desire to possess what these Black girls have that they do not. They covet Black flesh and identity, and for some, if they cannot wholly obtain it, they will destroy it instead.
The protagonist Liz must navigate these external fears and desires, while also grappling with this same dichotomy internally. She has always strived to be “one of the good ones,” a person who remains in the shadows, making no waves or strides toward success; a person in the middle, unseen and thus "safe." Her most difficult lesson lies in the understanding that “good” or “bad,” if you are Black, you are a target either way. Will this angering realization consume her and turn her into a force of destruction as well, or can her ire be used as a force of good? This tension comes to a satisfying and altogether poetic head at the novel’s climax, displaying Adams’s talents as a true storyteller, a weaver of narrative threads that come together into a perfect tapestry by story’s end.
With praise from the likes of Paul Tremblay and Alma Katsu, and with many more stellar writers sure to come, Jackal is a book not to be missed, and Adams a writer with a no doubt bright and thriving career ahead of her.
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