Former juvenile detention officer draws on past experiences for his debut thriller The Berry House

Former juvenile detention officer draws on past experiences for his debut thriller The Berry House
The Berry House by Earl Freeman | Image provided

Working in juvenile detention for around seven years, Oklahoma City native Earl Freeman had enough stories to fill a book. So eventually, he did.

The Berry House is far from a true-to-life account. Freeman draws influence from Stephen King as he spins the horrifying tale of undead revenge. But the debut book, published in September, is full of realistic detail and characters that only a detention center insider could ever know.

“It goes into depth about the vicious cycle,” the author said. “These kids come to the jail like they’re going to the gym, back and forth.”

Freeman worked as a detention officer at Oklahoma County Juvenile Justice Center, sometimes referred to as the Berry House, for two years. He moved to Atlanta in 2002 and worked another five years at a detention center there.

Juvenile centers can be dangerous, but Freeman said he kept safe by earning respect on the floor. He developed a reputation for telling scary ghost stories at night. Despite the tough exteriors many of the youths presented on the surface, the stories still got to them.

“They’d be so scared, they’d be afraid to go to their rooms at night,” he said.

In The Berry House, 12-year-old Bobby Berry wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed without any idea where he is or why he’s there. After he learns he is in a detention center, memories of the horrible preceding events begin to return.

He remembers hopping into his mom’s car after school with his 15-year-old brother, who had just stolen the vehicle and was on a joy ride. The brother’s fun turns into disaster when he causes a fatal traffic accident.

Bobby is a good, straight-A student, but because he was in the car, he too is locked up in the center for his role as an accessory to vehicular homicide.

The cousin of someone on the other end of the accident is a resident in Berry House. When he finds out those responsible are locked up with him, he begins plotting his revenge. Despite being an unwilling participant in the crime, Bobby is assaulted by the cousin and his friends.

Then the unthinkable happens.

Freeman said readers tell him they enjoy the book’s dark twists and turns.

“People love this story,” he said. “That’s the thing that makes this different; it’s more than just than a horror story. It doesn’t start getting creepy until the middle of the story.”

The Berry House wasn’t written as a quick way to get rich, the author said. In fact, it took him about 10 years to complete.

Freeman spent his early school years in special education classes but improved, attended Langston University and eventually became a published author.

He wrote most of the story in longhand, but even after he finished, a huge obstacle remained. Freeman said he was a below average typist at best. He tried enlisting friends and family to help, but it was difficult to convince anyone to follow through with typing out an entire novel. Freeman decided to do it himself.

“I just started pecking at it one letter at a time,” he said. “By the time I got done with that story, I could type pretty decently.”

It was a long process that Freeman sometimes found infuriating. He came close to giving up several times.

“There were a lot of times I wanted to throw this thing as far as I could,” he said. “Throughout the years, there was a lot of times I would get writer’s block and I couldn’t think of the next line to write at all.”

Still, Freeman never lost sight of his goal. He is now a published horror writer. He said the genre features few black authors. He hopes his story inspires more people from low-income or low-education backgrounds to follow their dreams.

“People who have been told, ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that,’ I hope to inspire those people,” he said.


Print Headline: Adolescent records, Earl Freeman drew on past experience when writing his debut horror novel The Berry House.