Tananarive Due released her ground-breaking horror novel The Between into a very different world back in 1995. To describe representations of Black characters in horror fiction and film at that time as “marginal” is to contort the word into a Rorschach splatter. The novel’s unapologetic embrace of horror tropes also alienated critics, academics, and other readers who otherwise would have embraced Due’s searing take on the dangers facing Black people in a supposedly racially integrated America. Those readers and critics—legion at the time—considered themselves too “serious” to read genre fiction.
The Between tells the story of an African American judge, the first and only to be elected in a Florida county, whose family is terrorized by a white supremacist. The novel is seen through the eyes of the judge’s husband, Hilton James, a civil rights activist who becomes obsessed with protecting his wife and children from the terrorist threat. As Hilton embraces his self-appointed role as protector and avenger, he finds himself either going mad or gaining the power to travel between parallel dimensions—or perhaps both?
Since publishing The Between, Tananarive Due has released several novels, written screenplays with her husband Stephen Barnes, co-produced the celebrated documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, and won the American Book Award, the NAACP Image Award, and the British Fantasy Award.
The Veil: How did you become a horror fan?
Tananarive Due: I had no choice! My late mother, Patricia Stevens Due, she was a civil rights activist and she was the first horror fan in my life. As a college student in Florida in 1960, she was tear-gassed during a peaceful march in Tallahassee. A police officer recognized her as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement that had started in town, and he threw the tear gas canister in her face and said, “I want you!” That physical trauma—she had to wear dark glasses 80% of the time for the rest of her life—left such a mark on her that I’ve come to realize that she used horror as a way to leech out all that trauma and those monsters. She never told me this, but I’ve come to figure this out.
So she was always watching horror movies when I was growing up. I watched all those creature features, the Universal monsters, The Mummy, The Fly, The Wolfman. She gave me my first Stephen King novel when I was sixteen: The Shining. I was off to the races! I’ve always loved that roller-coaster feeling of being scared, but in a safe capacity.
The Veil: Was it a natural step later in life to start writing horror?
Tananarive Due: Not really. In college, I had started writing short stories with white characters as protagonists. I was having a kind of crisis of identity. I had started naturally writing white male protagonists, which is one of the reasons that Hilton (the protagonist of The Between) is a male, though he shifted from white to Black. It took reading Black genre writers to make me realize that I could be part of a pantheon of Black literature and write horror. I was discovering that since I was Black, it would be better to write about my own experiences and insights. I had a very high bar in my family. My mother is mentioned in history books and both of my sisters became lawyers and I wanted to write horror. I didn’t absorb that bias from my mother—she loved horror!—but the experience of college and exposure to the canon, I sensed this disdain for genre that seemed pretty universal.
Then when I was working for the Miami Herald, around 1994, I got to interview Anne Rice. The New York Times Magazine had just written a piece dissing her for wasting her talents writing about vampires, so I asked her if that bothered her. She said, “Oh, that used to bother me, but my books are taught in universities now.” She talked about horror can explore ideas about death and love and identity. So Anne Rice just laughing off this question and saying when you write about the supernatural you can write about all these big themes, the lightbulb went on! This is who I am, I thought. At that time, I was just writing short stories.
The Veil: What inspired you to try your hand at a full-length novel?
Tananarive Due: What inspired The Between was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I was lucky not to have a lot of damage in my townhouse, but my mother’s house was damaged, my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s. Mile after mile of neighbourhoods were just flattened by winds. You couldn’t even recognize some of the streets. That was, as we say in writing circles, the inciting incident. I felt like I had walked into a different reality, which gave me the idea for the story that eventually grew into a novel. It was the inciting incident, as we say in the writers workshops.
The Veil: So you’ve never looked back!
Tananarive Due: Yes. In writing horror, I discovered that I could create characters who were pretty naïve about the existence of a fantastic realm—they don’t know there are zombies, they don’t know there are ghosts, they don’t know there are demons. In the case of The Between, he doesn’t know there are alternate realities. So part of the process for me as a writer is living vicariously through characters who have to confront life circumstances that are completely outside the bounds of expectation, figure it out while they are in the midst of the crisis, and come up with a plan. I honestly admire that quality, not only in my own characters but in all horror characters. They have to realize they’re facing the unknown, and then come up with a plan. The plan doesn’t always work, but the point is the process. And I always say, even if it doesn’t go well for the protagonist, even if they die in the end, you can always walk away from the movie or the book and say, “Well, at least that didn’t happen to me!”
The Veil: There is something ultimately hopeful because the horror protagonist is getting an education in life. They do learn something vital.
Tananarive Due: Exactly.
The Veil: Charles Ridgood, the white supremacist terrorist in The Between, is in his own way, a charismatic and very capable character. Was it difficult to access the humanity of such a terrible person?
Tananarive Due: I try to treat my characters equally, whether they’re a good character or a bad character. And you know, sometimes villains are the most interesting characters. My follow-up to The Between is a novel, My Soul to Take, and there’s an Immortal in that novel who does some horrible things. And readers love him! Everything he does! With Charles Ridgood, I wanted him to be charismatic because that makes him more frightening. If he’d been sort of a toothless mumbler, then that’s not very scary. The fact that he is so intelligent and charismatic, and that you can see that he could have done so many other things than being a terrorist, makes it frightening. I see many parallels today. I had a great conversation with a woman on a plane about our favourite Stephen King novels. I thought she was a kindred spirit but when we took off she was all up in the Fox News and conspiracy theories. I thought, Oh my gosh, we have nothing in common. But we did. And that can be the scariest thing. As horror writers, we also have to engage with the monster within. Every monster has people who love and care for them.
The Veil: Yes! Even Hilton, the protagonist, is—how can I put it—kind of unlikeable at times. Especially when he thinks he’s losing mind as his paranormal powers increase, Hilton acts like a bit of an a-hole at times.
Tananarive Due: I know what you mean. I’ve been working on a TV pilot for The Between, and in rereading the novel I thought, Wow, Hilton does start off as unlikeable. We literally meet him when he’s missing an important event honouring his wife to help a client move into a new place. On the surface that’s kind of sweet, but as the author I know that I was drawing from my own experience growing up with two parents who were civil rights activists. My father, John Due, was a civil rights attorney, and like Hilton, the call of the needy, which was very much a part of my childhood, is central to his identity. So Hilton’s outside life is in some ways a loving portrait of my father, who could never turn down an organization that needed help, who could never say no to a meeting. For the reader in that scene, though, Hilton is kind of slacking off from being there to support his wife. Beyond that, I added a sexual attraction to his client, which I think is a kind of bold move! But I wasn’t trying to portray him in a negative way but a realistic one. He’s a human being.
The Veil: In your preface, you write about the absence of substantial Black characters in horror. Do you think that’s changed for the better since you wrote The Between or is the recent interest in Black horror just a passing trend?
Tananarive Due: I genuinely believe that there has been and will continue to be genuine progress. But it is something that all of us need to keep an eye on. And by all of us I mean as creators, as publishers, as executives, as journalists. The books we choose to cover or not to cover, the books that get published or don’t get published, the films that get made or don’t get made. I really can’t overstate the impact of Jordan Peele’s Get Out on horror, and not just me and other Black artists, but on all marginalized creators. I won’t say it single-handedly opened the door for us, but I know what it was like trying to pitch Black horror pre-Get Out. Especially to Hollywood executives, where you’d either get blank faces or them saying, That’s great, but do the characters have to Black? There was no thought that a Black character could represent an Everyman or Everyperson in a story. You had to have a reason for the character to be Black.
After Get Out, the executives had a vocabulary to discuss Black horror. It’s interesting note the parallel rise of authors like Stephen Graham Jones [read The Veil interview here] and Victor LaValle, who’ve been out there publishing for a very long time! All of sudden, there are horror writers who are reaching a mainstream audience, authors whose backgrounds are now considered an attraction not a liability. One of the reasons for this is that, above all, horror fans want to be scared by something that is novel. I’ll always watch that story about the young family that move into the creaky old house, and they hear strange noises and shout, Hello, who’s there. I love that. But after a certain point, the same stories and mythologies get repeated too often.
Difference and novelty is essential for horror fans, so when you add specific storylines and myths that are outside of the European mythology we’ve seen play out again and again—it’s a little extra seasoning that gives you extra goosebumps! We’re always looking for that jolt. In that way, inclusion is just smart for everyone who loves reading scary stories. It’s also profitable for businesses to support marginalized creators. The caveat, especially in Hollywood, in the rush to be inclusive, is that producers will take a script from someone they know and just make the protagonist Black. Sometimes that can work but it can also be disastrous because you’re not bringing in the context of how race creates difference. I would caution gatekeepers to open their doors to new creators and not just add a few colours to the rainbow.
The Veil: Do you think the horror audience was ready for Black horror far earlier than producers and publishers?
Tananarive Due: I do think audiences were ready. Get Out came out exactly when people were asking themselves important questions like, What does it mean to be an ally, Am I a true ally, Can I trust the people around me, In what ways am I subjugated in ways that aren’t visible to people who aren’t living my experience? These questions were everywhere. But in fairness, there were a lot of Black films and books that just didn’t get the push they needed or the support from the horror community. I’ve been lucky in having executives who have at least tried to get my work produced for decades. They couldn’t get them made because there were only a certain number of Black films allowed to be on the slate at any time. It really was an uphill battle. Right now we’re in a very rich period for genre among marginalized creators.
The Black reading community was always supportive of my work. A lot of them don’t even like horror but they liked my work. The horror community has become just as supportive now. Editors are looking for ways to be more inclusive. I had editors reaching out to me to reprint stories. I feel like I’ve been discovered by a whole new side of the family. I don’t want to renounce that family. I love my horror community. We’re all little kids sitting around a campfire wanting to hear scary stories. I’m proud to call myself a horror writer.
The Veil: Do you think the prejudice against genre writing that you—and many, many others—experienced in university is starting to change?
Tananarive Due: A lot of instructors and writers have not read much genre. But they are educating themselves and they are seeing that their students are relating real experiences through this looking glass of horror and genre. It’s a way to comment on the world we live in through the lens of the fantastic, because to comment on it just dead on is too close to home, and maybe too heavy-handed. Genre allows you to find that necessary distance to comment. The monster is not really a monster, it’s mortality, it’s loss, it’s uncertainty. We all recognize the monsters in our lives, but sometimes it just takes that perfect horror or science fiction novel to make us see what it is.