The Taking of Jake Livingston
Author: Ryan Douglass
Length: 7.5 hours
Narrator: Kevin R. Free, Michael Crouch
Publisher: Random House Audio
Original Publication Date: 2021
Genre(s): Young adult, Horror, Queer
Jake is one of the only black kids at his high school. Also, he can see the dead. Like, all the time. Most of them don’t bother him intentionally — they’re just stuck in their death loops, reliving their deaths over and over. But then a ghost named Sawyer starts haunting Jake. Sawyer shot and killed kids at his own school before killing himself a year ago, and now he’s killing people as a ghost, too. And if he possesses Jake, he can continue on his rampage of vengeance. Jake may be a powerful medium, but he’s not entirely sure how to utilize those powers to defeat Sawyer — though if he doesn’t learn fast, the people closest to him might be in grave danger.
The Taking of Jake Livingston is told in first-person POV with dual perspectives: Jake and Sawyer. Jake’s chapters all occur in present-day, while Sawyer’s chapters begin with diary entries from when he was alive up to his POV as a ghost. This book has a lot to unpack, from the plot and characters to the many themes present in the story. I won’t dive too heavily into these aspects, as I think doing so would spoil a lot of the story, but I’ll do my best.
Let’s start with the plot. Jake can see dead people, animals, and…things. He has been able to see the dead since he was young. Usually he just sees death loops — and they are everywhere, to the point where it’s hard for him to drive or pay attention in class or even hear when someone’s calling his name. Apparently, ghosts are very loud. He can also astral project his spirit into the “dead world,” as he calls it. He will see things and people from the past here, and can communicate with the dead. There’s also this thing he calls ectoplasm — it kind of guides and speaks to him, I think? I don’t know. This was my main complaint with the book: there is so much stuff to explain and worldbuild, but the author just kind of…doesn’t. The book is relatively short, making it a quick, easy read. But in doing so, the worldbuilding lacks, and a lot of Jake’s abilities, plus details about the dead world, aren’t elaborated on. The dead world reminded me a lot of Stranger Things‘s Upside Down, and Jake with his abilities was reminiscent of Danny Phantom (yeah, I’m old, I hope you guys know what that is). I think it would be awesome to flush out this world a little more, because it seems really cool, I just lacked understanding due to the writing.
As for characters, I mainly care about Jake and Sawyer, those being the two main characters with POV chapters. Sawyer’s chapters were often very difficult for me to read, especially his journal entries. Sawyer is a highly complex character — you want to feel sympathy for him because of his home life, his upbringing, all the mistakes that lead to his breakdown… but also, he takes a gun into his school and kills kids. I was afraid this book would try to sympathize with and “go easy” on school shooters, but I don’t think it did. I think it put the blame in the right places: a lack of mental help, bad parenting, and the accessibility of firearms. That’s not to say Sawyer is a saint and is completely innocent — I think many, many people in this world have difficult lives and struggle mentally, but not all of us turn towards violence like that. It’s a very difficult, complex topic that maybe could have been addressed more, but as a YA horror novel, I think maybe that wasn’t the main focal point of the story.
Jake, our true main character, is slightly less complex than I think he could have been. He’s a black kid that attends a mostly-white school, so obviously he faces racism both from students and faculty. He makes himself small and tries to just blend in — partly because of his race, but also because of his medium abilities. Jake is also gay, though it’s not something he wants to admit to anyone. There’s a lot going on with Jake’s character, but much of it is kind of thrown to the side to focus on the main plotline of ghosts and Sawyer and possession. Which, again, is fine, because it’s a horror story, and I don’t think social criticisms are the main point of the book. I just wish Jake maybe could have received a little more complexity and dedication as Sawyer did.
There are so many themes in this novel: racism, homophobia, bullying, mental health, suicide, violence, school shootings, mental and physical abuse, parental neglect, molestation… lots of things to think about and discuss (and to be aware of for trigger warnings). Again, I don’t want to dive into them any more than I have in the above paragraphs regarding the main characters, mostly for spoilery reasons, but also because this is mainly a spooky book about ghosts and possession. I think the book could have absolutely been better by diving into these themes a little more thoroughly, but also, I really enjoyed it for what it was.
I was looking for a spooky YA horror story to get me in the mood for autumn and Halloween, and this book did exactly that. It’s very creepy, the autumn vibes are front and center, and the horror comes in different variations, from spooky ghosties to violent deaths, and even the realistic horror of a mentally unstable person. It was just what I needed to kick off my spooky readathon, and though it wasn’t perfect, it’s exactly what I was looking for.