In her debut novel, Jackal, Erin E. Adams begs readers to look at the horrors lurking behind the smiles of the residents of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the terrors hiding just in the corner of our eye. Through turning the trope of the reluctant return home into horror, Jackal pulls at the loosening threads of racial tension in the Appalachian rust belt and asks readers to consider the implications of growing up in a world that constantly tells Black women and girls not to trust themselves. By blending horror with noir, Adams invites us to explore the unsettling horror of inaction in the face of racialized violence and examine how Johnstown’s real traumatic history—the collapse of the South Fork Dam and subsequent flood in 1889 and the expulsion of Black families in the 1920s—informs the psychology of her characters and contextualizes the world they inhabit, as Toni Morrison does with Cincinnati, Ohio.
A gloriously haunting read, Adams’s novel joins contemporary horror storytellers like Jordan Peele to Black forerunners in the genre like Charles Chesnutt. But Adams’s novel cannot, and should not, be assigned to a single genre. Her work joins that of Crystal Wilkinson and Steven Dunn in broadening the scope of Appalachian literary tradition and offers readers a perspective of the region that is distinctly Black and fiercely woman.
Fourteen years after Adams’s protagonist, Liz Rocher, left, she finds herself coming home for a friend’s wedding—juggling anxieties over seeing her mother, her pointedly absent fiancé, and her childhood fear of Johnstown’s sprawling wilderness. When the reception is interrupted by the disappearance of the bride’s young daughter, Liz finds herself involved in a frenzied search that begins to unravel a town conspiracy, one that’s been festering in plain sight—decades of missing and murdered Black girls and families with no answers.
The novel pivots between Liz’s point of view and that of the culprit—the thing that’s been hunting girls in the woods. Through these intermittent vignettes and accompanying news articles, readers see through the predator’s eyes and are invited into the conspiracy even before our protagonist has become aware of it. Mauled girls, their hearts ripped from their chests, spread across the years, go ignored, uninvestigated, and reasoned away. The community, medical examiners, and even relatives of these girls continue to look away from the patterns emerging, sometimes to shield themselves through their grieving—“When they showed her [Alice’s body], all Tanisha saw was her daughter’s serene face. She didn’t look at the hole in her chest. . . . Instead, Tanisha chose to see what little serenity Alice had left.” But despite the precision of the mutilation, the medical examiner’s office labels Alice’s injuries an accident and issues a callous statement: “we have concluded that the victim got lost and succumbed to the elements. . . . We take this time to remind parents to ensure their children’s safety when hiking and playing in the woods. Children should be under adult supervision at all times.” As missing and murdered girls are dismissed by White authorities as the result of accidents, animal activity, or the result of negligent parents or victims’ poor decisions, we are left to wonder if these responses would be the same if White girls were being found mutilated in the woods.
The pattern, clear to us, goes ignored even by many Black residents in the predominantly White town, our protagonist notwithstanding. Through Liz, Adams presents us a compelling view of race in the rust belt. When the town’s isolated Black population must constantly carry the fear of prejudice, profiling, and racist retaliation, what will they ignore to protect themselves and their sanity? What lies will they believe to save themselves from being consumed by fear? In a place where material and social resources for the working class are scarce, scarcer still for racial and ethnic minorities who must compete against one another, how can Black residents know whom to trust? The unnamed narrator offers us a glimpse at the psychological impact of walking this fine line through one of his victims, Liz’s former classmate, Keisha:
Keisha would have been successful in life if she hadn’t fallen victim to one of its worst lies. . . . It was ingrained in her by her parents and they learned it from theirs. She believed that there was only space for one successful Black person. That means there was one popular Black girl, one pretty Black girl, and one Black girl at this party. Liz could be the smart one; Keisha was going to be the one who rode her connections to the top.
The pressure not to look, not to dig deeper, infiltrates every fiber of the book. Readers see this play out through the unsolved cases of missing and killed Black girls, through the madness of the “mess of mothers” whose children have been taken before, but tightening the lens reveals this is a habit long instilled in residents of the old steel town. An old Appalachian wisdom—don’t look in the trees—is a throughline across Adams’s novel via a rhyme whispered across generations of Johnstown’s children: 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 rhyme echoes the insidiousness of small-town racism, where looking too closely, staring it in the eye, puts Black residents at risk of violence. However, the brilliance of Adams is not only her hauntingly resonant conceits and extended metaphors, but in the efficiency of her language to root us in key thematic questions across the novel. Adams’s use of the rhyme reminds us that for many looking away means survival, but it also poses a question: Survival until when?
This is a question that plagues Liz as she wrestles with her childhood fear of the woods, and, later, one that her friend must confront. Facing the disappearance of her mixed-race daughter Caroline, Mel, the bride-to-be, doesn’t dare to openly share her thoughts on the rescue and recovery efforts. Instead, she drags Liz to the woods, away from prying eyes, to ask a question that readers—and Liz—already know the answer to: “[Mel] looks at me. The bags under her eyes are more apparent in the dim light. . . . ‘Where are the dogs? The human chains? The sweeps? . . . It’s cause she’s a little Black girl, right?’ ”
Only here, between the trees where her daughter vanished, can Mel, the white mother of a biracial child, begin to turn toward the double standard at play. Despite her family’s complicit and explicit engagement with racism—her brother Nick, who assaulted Liz as a child, believing “Niggers aren’t supposed to feel pain”; her parents, who kicked Mel out when she was pregnant with Caroline and encouraged Mel to leave her Black fiancé at the altar; Mel’s own microaggressive mantra, I don’t see color—when Liz pushes Mel to stare this metaphorical monster in the eye she falters and looks to defend her White family. “Nick is an asshole, and Dad was scared,” she says. “They didn’t know any Black people.”
Met with the very question of survival until when, Mel retreats from the possibility that the racial violence of her town can touch her child. When Liz continues to apply pressure, challenging what about me, Mel replies with something that Black readers will find uncomfortably familiar: “They know you, but you’re not . . .” Mel doesn’t finish that thought, and Liz doesn’t need her to. When confronted with the information that Caroline is the latest of several stolen Black girls, in an exchange reminiscent of the medical examiner’s coarse victim-blaming statement on Alice’s death, Mel revolts against the conflation of her daughter with those taken before: “Do not compare my child to a drunk girl in the woods . . . Do not lump my girl in with a bunch of runaways and drug addicts . . . Caroline is good!” Given the opportunity to look the thing, the conspiracy, in the eye, Mel looks away; she turns back toward her shield of Whiteness rather than face the reality that a violence that could never, would never, touch her has taken her daughter.
Adams’s expert characterization and increasingly cerebral prose invites readers to take part in dismissing Liz’s gut instincts, invites us to assume trust is so black and white, that truth is something we ’d recognize if we saw it, and that, in the protagonist’s shoes, we would know whom to trust. But these assumptions that readers may find themselves drifting toward, or perhaps diving into, are just another way to avoid looking the monster in the trees in the eye. Liz wrestles with these very assumptions across the novel, telling us plainly at the book’s opening, “The last right choice I made, beyond any doubt, was leaving this town. I’m here to confirm that . . . Because once I remember how to trust myself, things will start to mend.” And as the conspiracy unfolds and Liz is drawn deeper and deeper into the conspiracy, she must face the fear she’s been unwilling to name, fear that she cannot even trust herself:
I came here to figure out who or what I could trust. In doing so, I looked for it in everyone except myself. Because trusting myself means admitting the pain I’m in, not just now, but before. Trusting myself means doing things that are hard and dangerous. Trust means I have to face how I’ve lived and ask myself if it was good for me or for someone else.
Where a less skillful writer might be tempted into the linear return of a protagonist’s confidence, Adams doesn’t shy away from exploring the role of fear in distorting the choices of her Black characters. We want to root for Liz; we want to slide into the empty seat beside her and tell her she can trust herself, her feelings. Yet, we see that Liz often makes rash decisions, that she repeatedly finds herself frozen by her fear, fear of vulnerability, her future, failure; fear of the trees, or rather of what lurks in the trees. We see Liz turn to alcohol rather than face emotions she struggles to identify. We see her, as she struggles to untangle the mystery of the stolen girls, piece together accusations that lead nowhere and harm those close to her. We see Liz lie to grieving families to get information she wants; we see her grapple with the consequences of her impulsive actions. Through Adams’s careful plotting, we get to see an authentically unapologetic look at how trauma and lasting fear born out of and maintained by gender and racial tensions create a system vested in convincing Black women that they cannot trust themselves or each other. Adams’s electrifying debut dares us to look, eyes wide, into the things we’ve been told to turn away from. Dares us to look fear in the face and demand it look back.
Jackal. By Erin E. Adams. New York: Random House, 2022. 327 pp. $27.00.