White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson. Harper Collins Publishers, 2021. $15.19, 373 pages.
“You ever wake up in bed and feel like you’re not…alone?”
Shadows pass through the hallways and rooms. Kitchen cabinets open and dishes show up in places they weren’t before. Voices seep through the walls. And if she hears one more creak in this old, dusty house, she’s going to scream. She tries to brush her fears under the non-existent rug, but a much more sinister truth awaits her.
This is Tiffany D. Jackson’s White Smoke, a classic haunted house story with an alarmingly sad twist that intersects ghost hunting and social inequity.
White Smoke is a psychological thriller inspired by R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps book series. While it’s reminiscent of those books, it’s clearly meant for more mature audiences (with the mention of drugs and indecent language). Jackson pays homage to Stine in her acute attention to detail, masterful build-up of tension-filled moments, and description of relatable characters with specific quirks.
Throughout the story we see the main character, 16-year-old Marigold, display symptoms of “delusional parasitosis” after being traumatized by a bedbug infestation in her old home in California. That trauma sticks with her, as illustrated by the bedbug facts strewn throughout the chapters, her double- and triple-checking every mattress, and never touching wooden bed frames or cloth sofas. This detail is significant in helping readers understand more about Marigold than what people assume about her, and it’s interesting to see this aspect of her personality woven through the narrative.
Another main character is Yusef, whom Marigold meets on an awkward note; as she opens the front door and he simultaneously tries to knock, he accidentally punches her in the face. What an introduction! Jackson has characterized him as a witty guy who gushes over terrarium patterns and who is sexually innocent; he mentions that despite all the girls at school wanting a piece of him, he clings to his virginity until someone deserving waltzes around. This characterization of men is quite rare. While this is a small detail in the book, this reader certainly appreciated seeing Yusef portrayed in a different light compared to the common over-sexualization of male characters.
The relationship between Yusef and Marigold keeps up with the innocence. Not only do they work together to get to the bottom of this paranormal activity, but they’re also a pretty cute duo. They’re awkward and realistic, and these imperfections allow us to see ourselves in the characters. Relatability is what makes White Smoke a worthwhile read.
Spooky imagery adds to the sense of unease throughout the book, with sentences such as “A chill wraps my arms in ice, fear ramping up its engine” and “in that dark crack, one giant yellow eye is staring back at me,” and much more. These descriptions allow readers to immerse themselves in the tale and feel like they’re living in this eerie house with Marigold.
Despite its dark and horrific details, White Smoke is also laced with humor. Jackson represents the Black voice well, using vernacular such as “ain’t,” “what up doe?,” “you straight?” and even a comment by Yusef, “I punched homie up the block yesterday and he still sleep.” She beautifully demonstrates how Black people interact with each other in a natural way. The camaraderie between Yusef, Erika, Yusef’s friend, and Marigold is priceless as they talk about their dads’ shenanigans at family cookouts. Jackson even casually mentions Marigold “detangling her twist out,” a hair routine specific to Black women. These moments made this reviewer not only laugh out loud but smile in gratitude to read something relatable to the Black experience.
Speaking of the Black experience, this book raises some touchy subjects through its horror-ridden pages. More than half the population of this majority-Black town has been targeted for weed possession and thrown into the prison pipeline for 20-plus years, an unnecessarily long sentence. There’s also the Sterling Foundation, a White-owned company, claiming to want to “revitalize” Cedarville by evicting all the Black folk and destroying their houses. Their emphasis on completely demolishing homes that have been part of Cedarville for years so they can “[work] with people who want to see this city return to its glory” makes it obvious that this is about gentrification. Marigold’s stepfather Alec even blames the neighborhood, claiming the Foundation doesn’t want to “help them” because they rob and vandalize their own community. But her mother Raquel shuts that argument down real quick, saying, “Alec, you have no idea what these people have been through. You, as a white man, couldn’t possibly imagine.” These details slowly come together to help us understand the righteous anger of Ms. Suga that the people of the town have made a myth. The title of this book serves as a double-entendre, as white smoke billows from the houses being burned, caused by White people infiltrating a Black space and erasing its history. These details draw the line between mystical horror and real-life terror.
White Smoke is scary in a real sense, with the talk of gentrification, micro-aggressions, and the prison pipeline, and in a horror-movie sense, with the talk of moving objects, sleep paralysis, myths circling around town about “the Hag,” mysterious near-death experiences, and the feeling of someone always watching. Jackson breaks the mold of the traditional haunted house story by bringing harsh reality into a paranormal fantasy. This book will leave you imagining what you would do in these peculiar situations, making it a suitable read during the Halloween season.
Where White Smoke falls short, though, is its abrupt ending, which offers little to no resolution. It left this reader feeling unsatisfied after all that had come before. And although it is clear and full of bone-chilling imagery, the writing style is somewhat juvenile. We see the world through the lens of Marigold, centered around her life, the lives of her young siblings and her difficulties adjusting to a new high school. There’s also a considerable amount of attention paid to weed addiction, Marigold going so far as to plant her own weed garden in one of the abandoned houses because she needs it to calm her crippling anxiety. Teens and tweens could read this book and find it enjoyable and even relatable (since this is written from a high schooler’s perspective), but if you’re looking for a more sophisticated read, this may not be your top pick.
By the end of the book, we find out who the perpetrator is and what that perpetrator really wants. But we’re left wondering: who or what is causing the real problems in Cedarville? Is it ghosts, or injustice?