Tananarive Due Discusses Her Pioneering Black Horror Reissue ‘The Between’

“It's a revolution that Jordan Peele has helped spawn with Get Out,” Black horror author and scholar Tananarive Due tells me by phone, and there’s a certain amount of wonder in her voice. “There’s a very direct correlation between his rise and the rise, not just of other Black filmmakers, but I would say Black horror prose writers, and really all marginalized horror.”

Due, who now teaches a well-known class at UCLA about Black horror film, started writing horror based in the Black experience decades before Peele’s surprise hit film was released in 2017. Her 1997 novel My Soul to Keep, about an immortal Black vampire is considered a classic. This October her 1995 debut novel, The Between, was reissued by Harper Perennial. The book is about a suburban Black couple targeted by shadowy supernatural forces who possess a white supremacist killer. Its re-release is a measure of what has changed in the horror market in the last 26 years—and of what, unfortunately, hasn’t changed in America.

The Between is about Hilton, a Black director of a drug rehabilitation facility. His wife, Dede, is the first elected Black woman judge in Miami-Dade. Dede starts to receive terrifying death threats, and under stress, Hilton has terrifying nightmares of alternate realities—realities in which he dies in a swimming pool as a child, or in a car accident, or at the hands of Charles Ray, the racist targeting him and his wife. The book is a chronicle of Hilton’s disintegration, and of some force outside of time that wants him. His “dreams were like a bridge between the worlds,” and he runs from them because they tell him he “was supposed to be dead.”

When Due wrote the novel, there was not a lot of precedent for Black protagonists—and especially not a lot of precedent for affluent Black protagonists—in horror fiction. Due herself had started writing about Black characters as a child, but over time had had it drilled into her that fiction was supposed to be about white characters. Her first attempt at a novel was called Separate But Related, and featured two white brothers and their difficult relationship. “I was nowhere in this novel,” she says.  “I got 200 pages in before I realized, I can't write this story.”

Tananarive Due
Courtesy of Harper Perennial

The Between was a departure, both because it was horror, and because it was horror about Black people integrating the suburbs. Due’s own parents—both involved in the civil rights movement— had done just that in Tallahassee. “I was just letting it all hang out at that point,” Due told me. “Let’s write about moving into newly integrated neighborhoods. Because when I was a kid, my father did get a call from the FBI warning him not to open any packages, because there had been a spate of letter bombs. As a black person that's scary—a racist white supremacist terrorist going after your family. What can be scarier than that?” As Due has often said, “Black history is Black horror.”

When she was first writing the novel, Due was worried it wouldn’t resonate, because many would see white supremacist terror as a thing of the past. But then, around the time of the novel’s release, several men bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people; the investigation revealed their ties to white supremacist groups and networks.

Now post-Charlottesville and post-January 6, The Between seems if anything even more relevant. There’s plenty of documented evidence of Black women in positions of power getting death threats in the last few years; it’s easy to imagine a judge in Miami-Dade being targeted.  “For a certain percentage of the population, the United States feels like it's supposed to be a white country. And that's becoming way more obvious,” Due says. “They used to call it a dog whistle, and now it's a megaphone.”

The desire to erase Black people from judgeships and from power is of a piece with the desire to erase Black people from fiction and from the narrative.  The Between is about how the universe wants to get rid of Hilton; his very existence is a stain or a blot.  He isn’t supposed to have a narrative. Instead, he’s supposed to be silent and dead and buried. “We’ve found someone to do our weeding,” someone or something tells Hilton in his dreams like he’s undesirable and set to be hygienically removed by racist gardener Charles Ray. The individual white supremacist is the catspaw of a universe that wants to pull the Black protagonist out of his own story by the roots.

Essential Halloween Movies
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In the past, white creators and fans really have done their best to tear Black characters and Black protagonists out of their genre fiction. In 80s horror films, Black characters were killed off so frequently and so casually that it became virtually a cliché. More recently, casting Black actors in superhero films as the Human Torch and Heimdall has generated a predictable white backlash. Some fans were even upset that the character of Rue in The Hunger Games novels was played by a Black actor, even though Rue is clearly identified as Black in the books.

White supremacy is not just a couple of violent terrorists like Charles Ray coming for Hilton’s family. It’s also a widespread, difficult to pin down, but nonetheless, the malevolent cultural conviction that Black people shouldn’t be there…or there…or there either. The horror in The Between is not just that someone wants Hilton and his family dead. It’s that something wants them to be erased, past and present, so their lives, their deaths, and their horror can’t even be told.

Hilton isn’t willing to disappear so easily, though. Due hasn’t been either. Though the market for Black horror fiction was limited for a long time, she kept writing, and now that Get Out has opened the doors, she’s in a position to take her work to a larger audience. “I was an executive producer on the documentary Horror Noire, which got the greenlight the day Jordan Peele won his Oscar,” she says. “I'm very, very lucky to have lived long enough to have reached this new Renaissance, which was not true for everyone.  The late great L.A. Banks did not live to see this moment. The late great Octavia Butler would not live to see this moment. So that is something I'm very grateful for.” The Between, a book about who is and who isn’t given space to thrive, has finally found a timeline in which it can breathe.

+ posts

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.