The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass is on sale July 13, 2021.
By Chinelo Ikem
Content warning: suicide
Ryan Douglass is an author who has written extensively about the lack of representation in publishing, especially as it pertains to queer Black boys. In his medium article, How Publishing Is Failing LGBT Kids of Color, the first sentence reads, “I solemnly swear to make the world less hellish for gay and bisexual Black boys.”
In our phone conversation, Douglass further explained the connection between a lack of representation in literature and dehumanization: “Literature is supposed to represent the human experience, right? So when you go to the shelves and you’re reading about the human experience and your human experience is not in there, that sends a message that you are not human.”
His debut novel, The Taking of Jake Livingston, is a YA horror that uses genre elements such as ghosts and astral projection to explore anti-Blackness, mental illness, and homophobia as experienced by queer boys. The book is described by its publisher, Penguin Random House, as “Get Out meets Holly Jackson,” (Holly Jackson is the author of the popular YA mystery A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder).
The novel switches perspectives between Jake Livingston, a queer Black boy who attends an overwhelmingly white prep high school and can see ghosts, and Sawyer Doon, the ghost of a queer white boy who shot six kids at a local high school before committing suicide himself. Though the ghosts in the novel are usually harmless, the ghost of Sawyer Doon begins terrorizing Jake and those around him in an effort to take over Jake’s body.
There has been a recent wave of Black creatives using the horror genre as a tool to explore the insidious nature of anti-Black racism in the United States from movies such as Get Out, Bad Hair, and Antebellum to TV shows such as Them and Lovecraft Country – though the book Lovecraft Country was written by a white man, the head producer and writer behind the show is a Black woman named Misha Green.
Black authors are now beginning to join this wave. In a recent New York Times article, Zakiya Dalila Harris, author of the recent release The Other Black Girl, said she was inspired by the movie Get Out to write her horror novel about two Black women who are the only Black employees at a white publishing house.
Yet even with the recent wave of Black horror storytellers, fewer writers center boys who are both Black and queer in the way that Douglass does in his novel The Taking of Jake Livingston. While Jake deals with ghosts and the otherworldly, he is also a Black boy experiencing the uncertainty of pursuing his crush on a new Black boy student named Allister.
As a Black queer “feminine” boy growing up in Atlanta, Douglass related to characters in horror movies because being bullied as a child made him feel anxiety and fear, emotions he noticed were similar to the emotions felt by characters in horror movies.
“When I started watching horror movies, I felt a sense of connection to the characters who are just scared for their lives, didn’t know what was going on all the time, disoriented, trying to fight for survival because I felt like that was my life,” Douglass said.
As he got older, though the bullying had ended, Douglass noticed that Black employees like himself still had to make social concessions in the workplace by trading in their culture or becoming “less Black” in order to become more successful.
The experience of being the only one in a room can often make someone wonder, as Douglass told me, “What do I do when no one here is going to back me up?” Furthermore, experiencing anti-Blackness is a horrifying experience so it doesn’t take much to incorporate those experiences into the horror genre.
“I think that these experiences don’t really need a lot of embellishment to be horrific,” Douglass said. “The kind of racism that exists in predominantly white institutions is a horror show.”
In an article for Huffington Post, titled The Satirical Genius Of ‘Get Out’ Goes Well Beyond The Obvious, Douglass praised the movie Get Out for being “subversive” in the way that “it recognizes a Black person as a substantial human being—one with fears, personal traumas, and talent, who deserves to survive in his body—while demonizing the real and large portion of white America that would rather own that body for itself.”
Inspiration can be seen in the scenes in The Taking of Jake Livingston where Sawyer, a white character, asks Jake, a Black character, for control of his body.
“Because maybe you should give up your body to someone who knows how to use it,” Sawyer tells Jake in one scary scene. “Yes, yours would be a good body for me.”
But Get Out isn’t the only art that inspired Douglass, who credits Neil Shusterman’s Skinjacker Trilogy Series for his love of ghosts but also superhero movies like The Incredibles, Kickass, and Marvel’s Runaways series.
In Jake, who is a quiet but resolved character, Douglass said he sees a lot of himself. But Sawyer, a white school shooter, was harder for him to write.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written,” Douglass said. “It gave me nightmares.” Yet, Douglass felt that it was also “one of the most interesting” parts of the writing experience to explore what human social forces create school shooters.
Though Douglass views himself as a horror writer, he said that the next book he is working on is a queer romance.
“I am a horror writer to my core,” Douglass said. “But I think when you get into the industry and you start seeing what we don’t have and you realize you have a foot in the door, it kinda changes what you think about writing. And I think that my community really needs a lighthearted romantic comedy.”
Chinelo Ikem is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books, and a bookstagrammer @interestedinblackbooks. She has been an avid reader ever since her first grade teacher introduced her to the Junie B. Jones series. Her bookstagram, as well as her bookish blog, is dedicated to highlighting Black authors, especially Black women and Black queer voices. She received her double B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, and her J.D. from USC Gould School of Law. She is based in Northern California.