Racial Resentment and the Scavenging Beast: On Erin E. Adams’s “Jackal”
By Shannon ScottJune 19, 2023
Jackal by Erin E. Adams
The reason for this anecdote is twofold. Erin A. Adams’s recently published debut novel, Jackal (2022), addresses small-town racism in the United States, but it also investigates a series of grisly murders where the victims are targeted based on race and gender. The plot of Jackal centers on the murders of dozens of Black girls over decades in the rural Pennsylvania community of Johnstown, which is also the author’s hometown. Because the novel, despite its social, supernatural, or folkloric horror elements, is essentially a mystery, motive is key. Motive arises from the town’s history, from a collective bitterness experienced by the working-class white community toward members of the Black community, especially those moving up in society. This sense of scarcity with jobs, land, and money breeds a resentment that permeates the entire novel. By another name, it might be called white privilege or entitlement, but in Jackal it’s a seething undercurrent, like the flood that nearly destroyed the town in 1889, revealing deep racial and class divisions between the town’s residents.
Liz Rocher, the main narrator and protagonist of Jackal, may not see herself as upwardly mobile, but to residents of Johnstown, Liz is a “hometown girl makes good” story. She’s smart and sophisticated. She’s climbing the corporate ladder and living in an apartment in Manhattan. The irony is that Liz, returning home to play bridesmaid for her childhood friend Mel, doesn’t see herself this way. Instead, she sees herself as a failure. She is not in love with her job, though she is ambitious (a trait she carefully hides); she has recently broken up with her fiancé (a smart move considering what we learn about him); and yet she considers her singleness and childlessness as personal failures. Her measuring stick for success is a harsh one, and it was not designed by her.
Liz does her duty, dons a peach-colored dress, and assumes the role of bridesmaid. Her friendship with Mel is complex, stemming from childhood and having shifted to long-distance once Liz moved to Manhattan. It’s not as close as it should be. Mel’s denial about the racism in her own family and community is a barrier between her and any true understanding of Liz’s experience. Growing up in Johnstown, Liz was one of two Black female students at the high school. The town’s feeling of scarcity applies here as well. Liz describes the situation of her adolescence: “Two high-achieving Black girls, of course we weren’t friends. All our lives, we’d been told that there was only space for one.” Unfortunately, the community fosters this divisiveness, estranging the two young women from each other until it’s too late for one of them.
This toxic rivalry is explored in another recent social thriller, The Other Black Girl (2021) by Zakiya Dalila Harris, in which young women of color work their way up in the publishing world. Their corporate bosses encourage cutthroat competition, promoting the belief that there can only be one minority at or near the top. And that employee must be a model minority, that is, someone who can make a splash without causing waves—which is impossible. The only way not to cause waves is to float. And everyone knows what floats in a mystery novel.
In Jackal, Mel is marrying Garrett, a man she has also known since high school and with whom she has a young daughter, Caroline. Mel’s color-blindness with Liz seems consistent in her romantic relationship since she turns a blind eye to how her family initially rejects, then eventually tolerates, her interracial marriage to Garrett. The plot accelerates after the wedding ceremony, when Liz is tasked with watching Caroline. As the child plays near the woods, a space fraught with tension and repressed memory for Liz, Liz grabs a drink at the open bar. By the time she returns, Caroline is gone. The ensuing search would likely not be taken as seriously if Mel wasn’t white and if Mel’s brother was not part of the local police force. Even still, there are significant gaps in the investigation, specifically those that tie Caroline’s disappearance to other missing girls eventually found in the deep dark forests of the Rust Belt dead, violated, and with their hearts removed. Liz is the sleuth who digs in, asks questions, and meets with the mothers of multiple victims. Soon, everyone becomes a suspect.
Surrounded by a cast of white characters as shifty as the Armitage family/Coagula cult in the 2017 film Get Out, the reader is often pointing the finger anew with each turn of the page. There is no one to trust—and Liz would really like to trust someone. To rely on someone. She turns to detectives, to a new love interest, to childhood friendships, but there is no white savior. And the suspects keep piling up. It’s like a racist game of Clue where all the weapons are hunting rifles and Colonel Mustard is a bigot with a chip on his shoulder who can’t stop telling everyone he’s a self-made man. At times, the reader will feel a strong desire for Liz to pull a Miss Marple, to gather all the white folks in the drawing room and expose the killer over a cup of tea and scones. But that would not be nearly as riveting or as gruesome as the climactic sequence in the forest, where the killer’s identity is finally revealed.
In Jackal, we get the voice of the killer, if not their identity, from the beginning. There is a second narrator in the novel, Jack, who is mainly responsible for the disappearances of the girls. His voice is spliced between sections of Liz’s narrative. The text also brings in the voices of victims and the paraphernalia that arises from their loss: flyers, newspaper articles, journals, etc. The additional voices do not detract from Liz’s narrative but instead create a greater sense of urgency for her to solve the case.
Although Jackal is a mystery novel, there are significant elements of folk horror throughout: summer solstice, Bonfire Night, the rhymes of Jack and his “Fellow” in the forest, and the constellations and mythology of the nighttime sky. Most compelling is the suggestion of physical transformation, of infection through a bite that Liz sustained as a child, something that festers inside her, resulting in blackouts, sleepwalking, and the ability to shapeshift. While all this makes for great atmosphere and intrigue, it’s essentially a red herring. However, Adams does tie the origins of the titular scavenging creature directly to motive. If the jackal is supernatural, it is also man-made, the fallout of a natural disaster and a community’s subsequent division.
Adams displays a deft hand with setting as it intersects with history. In Jackal, the past is a catalyst for murder and monstrosity, illustrating the need to understand history because it so clearly shapes the present. It’s an idea similar to Toni Morrison’s “rememory” in Beloved: “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.” In this case, it’s a flood that scars the Pennsylvania landscape and haunts the communal rememory of Johnstown. In the Author’s Note, Adams describes her research process for the novel since regional history is so crucial to the plot. First, there’s the town’s devastating flood of 1889, in which 2,208 people died. Then there’s the reason behind the dam’s failure, the subsequent support efforts to rebuild the town, and the deepening of racial divisions. Adams also recounts another incident in 1923; however, I’m not going to reveal this particular historical nugget because Adams deploys it in a way that makes the past incident as significant as discovering the killer’s identity in the present.
Over the course of Liz’s investigation, her encounters with racial resentment and rage escalate. She is told by several white members of Johnstown that they lost their family’s land or businesses as the town grew and diversified. Consequently, when they saw themselves losing ground, they began paying malicious attention to anyone gaining it. Liz discovers that her mom, a Haitian immigrant and a physician in Johnstown, had wanted to open her own healthcare clinic but feared reprisal from the community. This turns out to be a legitimate fear since threats come in the form of nasty flyers that Liz’s mom has hidden from her daughter for years. Liz describes her mother’s philosophy: “We are good Black people. Good Black folks who don’t bring up race. We don’t make a fuss; we don’t make things uncomfortable; we are calm and cool and collected at all times. Even in the face of death.” For Liz’s mom, survival lies in keeping a low profile and obeying the rules. But Liz is not her mother.
The warnings, as well as the ominous forest, are reminiscent of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s “Little Red Cap”: Stay on the path. Don’t explore. Don’t engage with strangers. Keep your head down. The skin color of the girls becomes like Little Red’s cap: it makes them conspicuous and desirable as they traverse the forest, but it’s not something they can take off like a cap or a hood. Throughout the novel, the killer learns more about the girls by consuming their hearts. He discovers that “[b]eing a Black girl is inhabiting a cruel riddle: Your beauty is denied but replicated. Your sexuality is controlled but desired. You take up too much space, but if you are too small, you are ripped apart.” It seems as if there’s no way to win. Author Tananarive Due explores society’s combination of yearning and punishment when she writes about the appropriation of Black culture as it is portrayed in Get Out: “This country values Blacks for everything but our actual Blackness, our health and happiness, and our lives.” In Jackal, we wait for the white characters to value the dozens of victims or even their living neighbors, but we shouldn’t hold our breath.
This disregard for the health and safety of young Black women fuels Liz to uncover the truth. If she can’t get angry for herself, she can get angry for those who have an even harder time attaining justice. This anger, repressed for so long in our protagonist, starts to crackle on the page as she gets closer to solving the murders. According to Liz, “Sometimes anger is a low vibration, the coil before the spring. Sometimes it sinks inside me and paralyzes me.” Thankfully, it is the former visceral reaction to anger that drives Liz as she runs through the dark forest, steeling herself for the final battle with the monster who eats the hearts of children. In the end, Liz must learn to trust her own instincts and fight back. She has to become as strong and fierce as she knows she can be, even if it alienates her so-called community.
Erin E. Adams’s Jackal is a tight, thought-provoking novel that transcends genre as it combines mystery, thriller, and social horror. Already a successful playwright and actress, Adams brings an abundance of dramatic tension to her fiction. One can only await with anticipation whatever future stories are in her creative queue.
Shannon Scott is a writer and professor of English in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has published fiction and nonfiction in a number of collections, anthologies, and journals.
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