Ryan Douglass’s debut young adult horror novel, The Taking of Jake Livingston, captures the pain of navigating teenagerhood when no one around you sees the world the way you do. Jake doesn’t fit in with the other kids at his Atlanta-area prep school. There are three major reasons: He’s Black. He’s gay. And he can see the dead.
Everywhere Jake looks, he sees the “dead world.” The restless dead move through the world of the living, reenacting their demises in unending death loops. Jake has a mentor to help him through medium-hood, but she can’t help when one vengeful ghost starts hunting Jake. The teenaged ghost, Sawyer, shot up his school the previous year before turning the gun on himself. Sawyer is also Douglass’s second point-of-view character. His troubled past is revealed to the reader (and later, Jake) in a series of diary entries from the months leading up to his death.
Sawyer’s goal—to take Jake’s body for his own as he seeks revenge—seems very clearly Get Out-inspired. (Jake Livingston’s jacket copy pitches the book as Get Out meets Danielle Vega.) There’s plenty of ghost action in the book, but the most horrifying scenes don’t involve anything supernatural. It’s Jake’s interactions with the racist white students at his school that make the book chilling.
Douglass does a great job of communicating the specific kind of pain and loneliness that Jake experiences at school. (Jake also gets a love interest in the form of a second Black gay student, Allister, at his school. I could take or leave this romance—Allister is so perfect and eerily pushy that I kept expecting the book to reveal he was evil, or at least a ghost. Still, it was nice to see Jake get friends.)
Douglass also examines the ways Jake’s feelings of isolation are similar to—and different from—the longings that drove Sawyer to become a school shooter. Sawyer is white and gay, a victim of bigotry and abuse himself. His carefully-crafted perspective inspires empathy, hatred, and fear in the reader at various times.
Jake is, in some ways, deeply similar to Sawyer. Sawyer tugs at that similarity, trying to convince Jake to give in to his pain and hurt the people around him. Jake is fighting an uphill battle to be a good person in a world that’s stacked against people like him. Jake Livingston is a quick, worthwhile read that manages to pack a lot of dark themes into a tight space.
The Taking of Jake Livingston was released on July 13, 2021.