Author Tananarive Due is a winner of the American Book Award and a recipient of the NAACP Image Award, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award finalist and a general luminary of horror literature. With a career spanning three decades and highly influential academic and fictional works in Black horror and speculative literature, her contributions to American letters are impossible to overstate. Due teaches in the writing MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles and is an endowed Cosby chair in the humanities at Spelman College. She currently teaches a class at UCLA called “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and the Black Horror Aesthetic” based in part on the work of Jordan Peele, who visited the class in its early days to express his appreciation.
With a body of work that just keeps coming — The Reformatory, a new novel about the horrors of segregation will be published by Simon and Schuster in October 2023 — her point of view on the current glow-up of horror is thoughtful, engaging, and impressive. Speaking with BGN via video chat, Due had much to share.
What keeps you going in disheartening times?
Writing has always been the thing to sustain me during hard times. That’s been true through the pandemic, but I remember it was true in 2012 when my mother passed away. I was 14 when I had my BLM moment. Miami cops had beat a motorcyclist to death and then were acquitted, and that was when I realized we don’t matter. It blew my mind; this was the same nation to which I had been pledging allegiance.
I wasn’t naïve. My parents were civil rights activists, and I knew the fight remained. But the vastness of white supremacy is the major trauma in my life. I leaned on my writing through all of that. I finished The Reformatory during COVID after working on it for seven years. The literal notion that I might die got me on a page quota, and I finished that baby.
Is it easier to write horror than stories that end happily ever after?
It is for me! Some people escape through happy stories, and a lot of people like those. Patricia Stephens, my mother, was the first horror fan in my life. She used horror and fantasy and that immersion into imaginary monsters to heal herself from the real monsters of state violence. We all like a good comedy, and that’s the other side of the coin of how I handle myself. I don’t get to show that side of myself often. I try to give that bad feeling a face and a protagonist to fight it, to confront the unknown.
What’s the work you’d recommend to get someone new into horror?
I love that horror is getting a glow-up right now. I’d say look for best-of-the-year short story anthologies and collections. Of course, I’d recommend my own collection, The Wishing Pool and Other Stories. Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology contains works only by marginalized authors. Anthologies can be uneven, but this one is consistent. For Black readers who might not think of themselves as horror fans, the first step is to see yourself. Seek out Black authors, as well as the works of other marginalized folks.
The documentary Horror Noire, of which you were a huge part, has been out for a couple of years. What was that project like for you? What has the aftermath been like?
I was so honored to have been a part of this. The production team came to me and brought me in after the film was written, to give interviews and to lend my name and support.
Alejandro Brugués, director of the film Juan of the Dead, told me he loved it. I was fangirling him, and he came back to tell me he loved Horror Noire. Brian Fuller said the same thing to me when we walked past one another in the hallway.
And then I worked on the anthology of the same name for the horror network Shudder — those are my first screen adaptations. I wrote the episodes “The Lake” and “Fugue State” with my husband, Stephen Barnes. That collab was a peak experience.
My only letdown was that I don’t feel like the series found its audience. That’s frustrating. You never feel like there’s enough billboards, never enough PR behind anything. But I love the short form, both in prose and scripts. I hope to be part of another anthology in the future. It is difficult but so exciting to create these pint-sized stories.
As a master of the horror genre, what kind of story still really scares you? What’s the monster you dread most?
So many stories begin with people moving into a dark house in the middle of nowhere. And they walk around the creepy house yelling, “Hello? Hello?” I wouldn’t do that, but they do. Everyone is so afraid that the house is haunted and they’ll meet a ghost. That doesn’t scare me; ghosts are simple. They want to be acknowledged, they want to tell somebody who killed them. But a demon? That’s the one that gets me. Demons can’t be placated. You can’t solve the mystery of how they died. It’s so hard to know how you pissed the demon off. Maybe you knocked a stone out of place, and now it’s an intergenerational curse.
I’m also afraid of zombies because they’re the monster who looks like a loved one. For those of us who have cared for aging parents or someone very ill, that can really hit home. They don’t know you, or they’re angry in their suffering. It’s like watching them transform into a zombie. That’s why they get under our skin so much. There’s too much truth to the zombie.
Who are you reading right now?
When I was at the L.A. Times Book Fair, I was paired with an author I didn’t know, but I was the last to find out about Leigh Bardugo. So now I’m reading Ninth House. It’s hot and I really like it.
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Meg Elison is an author and essayist living on the East Coast with West Coast sensibilities.