Hardcover / Ebook
Gallery/Saga Press, October 2023, 576 pgs
In Tananarive Due’s latest novel, The Reformatory, Due places another entry in the Black horror canon. Famed for such books as My Soul to Keep, The Good House, as well as her work on Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, it’s no surprise that The Reformatory is a well-researched and terrifying book. The novel is set in the 1950s and follows a young Black boy, Robert, who is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys, a reformatory known for abusing and killing the children sent there. He’s sent there after defending his older sister, Gloria, from a sexual advance made by a white teenager in their Florida town.
Set against the Jim Crow South, The Reformatory doesn’t hide any of the terrible realities that were a part of everyday life during this time. This type of attention to witnessing puts readers on a heart-wrenching journey through the horrors that lurk both among the living and the dead. Due’s meticulous attention to historical detail and emotional rawness connects her own relationship to the subject matter. The character Robert is based on Due’s great-uncle who, in 1937, went to the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.
In a manner reminiscent of Due’s other works, the horror and salvation for the characters are interwoven with the racial prejudice they face, creating a chilling atmosphere. The novel is a dual POV split between Gloria and Robert, showcasing different parts of the same struggle. While Robert’s time in the school is filled with beatings, haints, and worse, Gloria’s chapters are just as horrible as she’s at risk of being attacked for trying to help her brother. Due’s ability to capture both voices of the characters despite the age differences and experiences they deal with keeps the story moving at a constant, charged pace.
Robert and Gloria both possess unique abilities, allowing them to see people’s futures and pasts, haints, and a sort of sixth sense for events. These supernatural elements aren’t the horror of the story, though. Dead boys with knives in their backs and skin burnt crisp, while horrible, aren’t the things that kept me scared throughout the story. It was the people, the real live people who were whipping boys, beating them, and hurting them even after they had died that is what petrified me.
The Reformatory is the scariest book I’ve read all year (and I’ve been reading It by Stephen King). The way I felt while reading Due’s book are similar, or near identical, to ways I’ve heard people talk about their experiences reading King’s It. The brutality against children in both books is so disturbingly clear, but with The Reformatory, it was so horrifying it was sickening.
The Reformatory is the perfect example of an American horror story. It takes readers on an honest and horrific narrative journey through a dark chapter in American history. And Due does it with care to the victims. Even the most frightening dead boys at some point made me want to cry, made me want to reach through the page to try and save them. Due’s storytelling is powerful and evocative and will leave you shaken. If you’re looking for a truly terrifying read that is also deeply rooted in history, this is the most terrifying book you’ll encounter, and a must-read for fans of Black horror.
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