When twelve-year-old Robbie tries to protect his sister, Gloria, from the lecherous attention of a landowner’s son, he is arrested and sentenced to six months at The Gracetown School for Boys. Gloria’s legal challenges are dismissed, and sensing that her brother is in terrible danger, she makes other plans to secure his liberation from the renowned Hellhole where 30 years earlier many boys died in an unexplained fire.
“I’m your last chance, boy,” Haddock says. “A Negro child who’ll kick a white man will grow up to poison society and his own race. If he grows up. Getting sent here is the luckiest thing could have happened to you.”
Meanwhile, Boone recruits Robbie to hunt haints for Superintendent Haddock’s macabre collection. But Robbie’s friend, Blue, forbids him from helping Boone to trap the restless spirits so that Haddock can continue torturing his victims. Instead, Blue pressures him to steal evidence that could ensure the closure of the reformatory and the conviction of Haddock.
The Reformatory is a chilling horror which could be classified as a ghost story if its monsters weren’t all too human – the staff and the psychopathic superintendent, and the State of Florida with its rampant white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.
“A slow, rough scraping across the floor was much louder than the buzzing flies or soft snoring around him: moving and halting, coming closer to him from the center row where his head lay. The object dragging sounded like … a bum leg, a foot dragging slowly? The smell and the scraping sound were tied together; when one came closer, so did the other.”
Although supernatural forces are omnipresent, the antics of creepy and sometimes mischievous ghosts are eclipsed by the greater threat of human cruelty meted out by men who believe themselves superior to their charges or are just following orders.
“He thought the twentieth lash would end it, but it didn’t. Or the thirtieth. But after thirty-five lashes, when tears dropped from Robert’s face, the whipping stopped. The sobbing was gone too, and the silence was worse.”
Even beyond the boundaries of the reformatory’s cursed land, people who dare to challenge the established order – by cleverness, empathy or more direct opposition – have their homes burnt, and are beaten or killed, unless they abandon everyone they love and escape far enough north. In short, Gracetown is a hellish place where no one can be trusted and paranoia dictates every decision.
In some ways, The Reformatory reminds me of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Michael McDowell’s Cold Moon over Babylon, and Kia Corthron’s The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. However, Tananarive Due’s voice is unique, and she tells this story with terrifying eloquence. Siblings, Gloria and Robbie Stephens, are Due’s dual protagonists. They face increasingly high stakes in this compulsive page-turner, as we learn that no one is safe, and even death cannot release the boys from torment.
Due’s descriptions of horror, both real and fantastical, are flawless. The reader is forced to confront America’s shameful history while constantly fearing for the children victimised by it. The Reformatory is a modern masterpiece of horror fiction.