Book: “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen
Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, August 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: A haunting novel about a black woman who returns to her hometown for a plantation wedding and the horror that ensues as she reconnects with the blood-soaked history of the land and the best friends she left behind.
More than a decade ago, Mira fled her small, segregated hometown in the south to forget. With every mile she traveled, she distanced herself from her past: from her best friend Celine, mocked by their town as the only white girl with black friends; from her old neighborhood; from the eerie Woodsman plantation rumored to be haunted by the spirits of slaves; from the terrifying memory of a ghost she saw that terrible day when a dare-gone-wrong almost got Jesse—the boy she secretly loved—arrested for murder.
But now Mira is back in Kipsen to attend Celine’s wedding at the plantation, which has been transformed into a lush vacation resort. Mira hopes to reconnect with her friends, and especially, Jesse, to finally tell him the truth about her feelings and the events of that devastating long-ago day.
But for all its fancy renovations, the Woodsman remains a monument to its oppressive racist history. The bar serves antebellum drinks, entertainments include horrifying reenactments, and the service staff is nearly all black. Yet the darkest elements of the plantation’s past have been carefully erased—rumors that slaves were tortured mercilessly and that ghosts roam the lands, seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who tormented them, which includes most of the wedding guests. As the weekend unfolds, Mira, Jesse, and Celine are forced to acknowledge their history together, and to save themselves from what is to come.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
One of my favorite places to visit on a semi-regular basis (at least in the beforetimes) is Savannah, Georgia. It’s such a funky historic town, and I really enjoy staying in the historic area, walking around the squares, and doing haunted pub crawls and ghost tours. I also try to go on historic house tours, as there is a lot of interesting history there, but I almost always found it hard to really enjoy because so many of the tours would completely white wash the slavery aspect of said history. That isn’t to say that doesn’t happen in Northern historical institutions: as someone who has worked at historic sites before, one of which had a significant tie to Dred Scott, it happens up North too (admittedly, the sites I worked at did try to start the conversations, they just also didn’t give us tools to handle the visitors who would meet those conversations with either derision or flat out hostility. THE STORIES I HAVE.). Horrors of some of our historic sites can get lost, and a lot of the time it’s because of the fact America hasn’t really faced those horrors yet. “When the Reckoning Comes” by LaTanya McQueen takes this idea, and makes it into a full blown vengeful ghost story, and boy does it work.
In terms of ghostly plots, we have a little bit of everything. Childhood friends Mira and Celine have grown apart, but Mira returns home for Celine’s wedding at a rural plantation house that may or may not be haunted. We see this story unfold in a few ways. The first is the present, as Mira attends the wedding celebrations in spite of her very understandable discomfort. But that discomfort isn’t just because of the terrible things that happened to Black people on that land (and Celine deciding to have a lavish party there in spite of that), but also because of another timeline we see: when they were kids, Mira and hers and Celine’s friend Jesse went onto the land when it was run down and abandoned, as the rumors of ghosts were intriguing. But what they both saw and experienced on that visit changed their lives. For Mira, she saw things that she couldn’t explain, but for Jesse, the mysterious death of a white local on the property led to him being suspected of murder due to his proximity, but mostly his race. All of these things come to a head during Celine’s wedding celebrations, but there is also the aspect of the vengeful ghosts that want to take out any descendants of those who brutalized them in life… who happen to be a lot of the wedding guests and wedding party members. The ghost aspects of this book hit all the marks I wanted them to hit: they have VERY legitimate reasons for being angry, there are a lot of creepy moments with imagery and pacing, and we have Mira who just can’t quite believe that she is seeing something supernatural, even as it becomes more and more clear that something strange is happening. McQueen knows the beats to hit for an effective ghost story, and she hits them pretty well.
But this ghost story, while absolutely having creepy ghost moments, is also about the way that history and trauma can haunt for generations. The metaphors are rich in this book, the ghosts of America’s sins being a huge theme, and characters like Mira and Jesse who have to reckon with them, while characters like Celine don’t feel like they have to. Mira and Jesse bear the brunt of American racism in different ways, be it Jesse being accused of a crime he didn’t commit because of his race, or Mira internalizing that racism and trying to be an ‘ideal’ Black woman in a society that is fueled by white ideals and supremacy. For them to be invited by white childhood friend Celine to her LITERAL plantation wedding, and for her to not see what the problem is with it and to dismiss how fucked up it is, is truly a perfect set up for this kind of story. Celine is a bit more than the caricature that she could have been, in that you do see her complex friendship with Mira for both the bad and the good. You do see how she, too, had a hard time growing up in their community as someone who was poor. But you also see that she always, ALWAYS, falls on the side of her whiteness, even when it is on the side of those who mistreated her for other things, and how insidious whiteness can be because of that. It’s heavy stuff, and McQueen lays it all out expertly. And really, the true horror story moments are moments of interlude that are from the generalized POV of the ghosts of the slaves, who tell their experiences in all of their devastating truths. It is so hard to read, but it is very important to do so. We have so much reckoning to do still.
“When the Reckoning Comes” is certainly a horror story, but it’s the horror story of the disgusting legacy of chattel slavery in America. And it’s long past time we face that horror head on.
Rating 9: Lots of suspense and scares, as well as on point commentary, “When the Reckoning Comes” is a seething and scary horror story!
“When the Reckoning Comes” is new and not on many Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Diverse Horror”.