When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen

When I say that When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen is an airplane read, I don’t mean that as an insult. Not at all. I value good airplane reads.

I want an airplane read to do is to keep me entertained for the duration of the flight, which When the Reckoning Comes definitely did, or would have had I been on a plane, probably SFO to Chicago O’Hare. I probably would have left it on the plane afterwards, but I would have been lost in the story while reading it, unaware of how long and uncomfortable the flight is.

When the Reckoning Comes is the story of three childhood friends– Jesse, Mira and Celine– reunited after many years when Celine invites Jesse and Mira to her plantation wedding in their South Carolina hometown. As children, Jesse and Mira had explored the ruined plantation house where Mira believes she saw ghosts. The now restored plantation has become a historical reenactment theme park/wedding venue, but the ghosts still remain.

I read When the Reckoning Comes for the Room 217 horror book club at my local library here in Grass Valley, California. One of the librarians mentioned the club to me while I was checking out something with a horror genre connection. So, earlier this week I read the book, and yesterday I went to the book club meeting above the local witchcraft supply story, Loot and Lore. (I mean who doesn’t want to join a horror book club that meets above a witchcraft supply story?)

I had a good time.

And I ended up spending a lot more time thinking about When the Reckoning Comes than I would have otherwise. The true mark of a good book club discussion.

My issues with the book stem from two elements. The first is a fictional haunted plantation now used as a historical reenactment theme park/wedding venue. I know that plantation weddings are a real thing, and I was willing to play along with the reenactment aspects which did include Black men working in the fields along with “servants” all over the place and a couple of slave quarters cabins guests could observe. I didn’t bother to look this up to see just how far plantation weddings go into reenactments. Honestly, plantation weddings are already so problematic that I won’t be going. Don’t invite me. But the addition of Black reenactors made this setting a little hard for me to believe. Still, I’ll play along just to see where Ms. McQueen is going with this idea.

My second issue had to do with how slavery was portrayed in some of the book’s later scenes. It’s a horror book club, so I can’t object to things being horrible even when they go into Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. What bothered me was that the book’s portrayal of slavery’s horrors includes things that didn’t actually happen. Slavery in America was so horrible, that I don’t think you need to make up additional horrors just to shock the reader. We’ll be shocked by the truth. Check out Lovecraft Country, Underground Railroad, or Kindred.

One thing the author mentioned really just didn’t ring true to me. I wanted to see receipts. So, I checked the back of the book to see what sources she used–none are mentioned. Google, anyone?

Towards the end of the book the ghost of the plantation owner shows the narrator how he once made shoes from the skin of the enslaved men he killed. Pretty awful. Did it happen? Is this worse than what we know was really done?

I couldn’t find any reliable sources to support shoes made from slave skin. For me, something reliable would include .edu websites, articles from universities, museums, historians whose CV I can verify. Snopes.com, which fact checks all sorts of things, does not support the story. The websites I did find in support of the story all cite the same newspaper article from 1888 in which the author says he knows someone who knew someone who wore shoes made from human skin. That’s secondhand hearsay printed in a 19th century newspaper over twenty years after slavery officially ended in the U.S. And he says the skin came from cadavers in medical schools. (Which I don’t believe by the way, but if you know a reliable source, please let me know.)

The history teacher who lives in my soul writes “citation needed” in the margins of When the Reckoning Comes.

This is something that often bothers me in my reading, when an author makes up historical “facts” to make something that is already bad seem worse. It’s just not necessary. There are so many truly horrifying stories about American slavery that we can corroborate. Why not use them? It feels exploitative to me to make things up the same way it does when a crime story goes into extra graphic horror just for shock value. I don’t have to read fanciful details about what the killer did with the corpses to be horrified by a series of murders.

One of the librarian group leaders suggested that these horrors were on the opposite end of the plantation reenactment. Since we can read the fictional aspects of the modern-day plantation scenes as satire, maybe the fictional aspects of the historical plantation should be read in a similar vein. A very interesting idea. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

But I have been spending a lot of time mulling over a book that Initially thought was an airplane read.