Waking Life: The Between by Tananarive Due

While I’ve loved Tananarive Due’s work as an executive producer, co-writer, and interview subject in Shudder’s Horror Noire, a documentary on Black horror films adapted from Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, and as a co-host of Octavia Tried to Tell Us, an ongoing discussion of Octavia E. Butler’s work and influence, I’ll admit I hadn’t gotten to her own fiction before this month. I finally reached The Between in my TBR stack, and I am so excited that I have a whole bunch of Due’s books left to read. Due’s debut novel threads supernatural scares together with real life terror to create a genuinely frightening horror story that is also a moving tale of familial devotion.

The first time we meet Hilton James he’s a young boy. He lives with his Nana, she’s his whole world, and he’s just come home to find her dead on the kitchen floor. But when he comes back in with the neighbor he roused to help, Nana’s just fine—she claims she fainted. Supper’s probably burned, though.

But Hilton knows how cold and clammy she felt when he tried to wake her—she felt dead.

When we catch up with Hilton again three decades later, he barely remembers the incident. His memories of Nana aren’t too clear anymore. A short time after the “fainting spell”, Hilton ventured too far out in the ocean during a family reunion at the beach; Nana rescued him from the undertow, but slipped under herself before anyone could reach her. He spent the rest of his youth in Miami with his Aunt and Uncle, met his wife, Dede, in grad school, and now runs a counseling center for people seeking help for homelessness and addiction. Dede has just been elected a circuit judge—the only Black female circuit judge in their county—and their two kids, Kaya and Jamil, are adorable and precocious. Life is good.

It’s the dreams that are messing everything up.

I too nearly drowned as a small child, sucked under by an undertow. It was my grandmother who saved me, like Hilton’s Nana, looping an arm around me and pulling me back up into the air. It was a much less dramatic near drowning, though, and I’m relatively certain my grandmother didn’t make any shadowy deals to keep me alive. (Relatively.) Years later, when I was around Hilton’s son’s age, I was almost pulled under a second time. That one I remember—I could see my parents sitting in the sand, a few yards away. I could feel the current pulling me under, and I knew I could neither fight it nor yell loud enough to call for help. The water in my ears wasn’t a sound so much as an overwhelming silence. A wave came, crashed over me, and tumbled me up close enough to shore that I was able to haul myself up into the shallows like a panicked seal. I didn’t tell my parents about it (I was worried they’d tell me to stop swimming) and now, as a (marginal) adult, I don’t know how much danger I was really in. I know what it felt like. And I know that it was terrifying enough to stick in my memory more clearly than things I did last week. I think it was the fact that I could see my parents. (It’s like that scene in Halloween, when Laurie strode pounds on door after door and no one helps her, or, you know, like now, when a deadly illness is ravaging the planet and large swathes of people can’t be bothered to wear masks, or like, now, when the climate’s collapsing around our ears and none of the people who could actually save us all are saving us all. ) I thought of those two incidents a lot while reading the book, both for the obvious watery death reasons, and for the fact that reading this book felt like that second time. Watching a character’s reality slip away, hearing his panicked internal monologue, while normal life rolls on around him, oblivious to the undertow that won’t let him go.

“The Between” of the title is the idea that sometimes people who were fated to die manage to evade their deaths and come back. Once this happens, however, death lurks in even the most innocuous actions, and each time its cheated it gets a little more determined to claim the person’s life. A person in this situation is “between”, walking dead, on borrowed time. They may not even know it, consciously, but the fact that they’re working against nature begins to color their dreams, and, eventually, their waking life.

Is Hilton trapped in the Between? Was Nana? And if so, what fate trapped them there, and how can they be freed?

The Between does my favorite horror genre trick: at first, aside from that opening scene of Hilton finding Nana, life in the book seems pretty mundane. The James family lives in Miami, where they have a large network of friends and family. The kids are doing well in school, Hilton goes to Heat games with his buddies, Dede is respected at work. They drive on real streets and go to real grocery stores. While there were rough times in the past, they’ve come through all that, and their life now is filled with sunlight and warmth, and reality is solid beneath them. And then, so slowly that you don’t even notice is at first, reality starts to slip.

Due plays this idea of Between-ness against the more “logical” diagnoses of mental illness, stress, and drug use, keeping her characters and readers guessing about what the truth really is. Since the book is in close third POV, we’re usually, mostly, in Hilton’s mind. Due structures like a horror film—we often know a bit more about what’s going on than the hapless characters trapped in the story. We see the dreams Hilton is having, but he doesn’t remember them. But then, too, we see Hilton do things, only to learn later that he didn’t do them—they were hallucinations so vivid that they feel like memories to him, and facts to us. The book takes us through about a year and a half of Hilton’s life, flashing between waking life, dreams, and memories, with a few newspaper articles in the final third of the book giving a new perspective. These shifts in perception and reality are bumpy and weird, with occasional lulls where Hilton’s life seems to have gone back to normal before the bottom drops out again. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling stuff, but the reading experience is delightful (if you like horrific reading experiences) because the book feels like a drawn-out nervous breakdown, where we the readers are never quite sure what reality looks like.

Due fills the book with different types of water imagery to remind us inexorably of Nana’s death (her second death???) and, on top of that, she plays with doorways constantly—the doors to apartments, to bedrooms to closets, to hospital rooms and homeless shelters—as liminal spaces, thresholds between life and death, and good and evil. Hilton is forever leaning into doorways to talk with people without going all the way into rooms, checking the locks on doors, walking down flickering, abandoned hallways where each new door might hide some sort of horror.

Also, hallelujah, Hilton is not always likable. (He’s always lovable, but that’s different.) He often allows his moods to get the better of him, he’s short with his staff, mean to his kids, unsympathetic to Dede. He refuses to get the help he so obviously needs, determined to be a “strong” man and take care of everything himself. I loved this because to me that’s a necessary part of the genre: if you’re actually a character in a horror story you’re under unbearable stress, coping with terror, trying to find your way through events that you know are real, but that can’t be real. No matter who you are that’s going to fray your mind, in the same way that real-life horror, like severe illness or grief, will change you. Hilton is not the same man at the end of the book as he is at the beginning, and part of the point of the story is watching him change to try to cope with a new reality.

There’s a lot of fun stuff about masculinity layered into this book as well. Hilton’s closest male friends are his former therapist, Raul, a police office, Curtis, and the man I’d call his Work Husband, Stu, a doctor who cares for patients at the counseling center. Tracking those three relationships is a fun thread in the book: Raul is demonstrative and physically affection, which Hilton puts down to his Puerto Rican culture and isn’t always too comfortable with. He and Curtis are usually fairly gruff with each other, with the cop posturing about Dede having a crush on him. Stu is jokey and deadpan, but also, always clearly has an eye cocked toward Hilton’s health. All three men do everything they can when Hilton’s his life starts to fall apart, and it’s interesting to think about how things in the book may have gone differently if he was a little more open to admitting when he needed help.

And of course, as with a lot of the best horror, Due’s book wrestles with societal evils. One of the main plot threads is a racist threat against Dede, and one of the strongest elements is the fact that, while there may be something supernatural working against the family, it wouldn’t have as much power to hurt them if it wasn’t able to tap into the white supremacist terrorism that’s always bubbling away under the surface of our modern, civilized world, waiting to be set loose. (Reading this book in any week of this country’s goddamned news cycle would be intense. But obviously reading a book where disgusting racist threats are sent to a Black family’s home, only to have those threats turn up in hallucinations, dreams, fugue states, coloring the characters’ reality and destroying their safety, and reading that while news about the white supremacist terrorist attack in Buffalo festered across every news channel and twitter feed, well, I’ll use the word gutwrenching—but that doesn’t cover it. Nothing can cover it.) Due creates an incredible balance between the very concrete, racist threat that’s a constant, thudding beat in her characters’ lives, and scenes of uncanny horror that threaten more than their lives–they threaten their deepest selves. And Due, writing in the early ‘90s, uses Hilton’s job as a way to talk about other real-life horror like homelessness, drug addiction, and the AIDs crisis, with deep care and empathy.

Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, but I do also want to say that the ending is perfect and stuck with me long after I finished reading.

The Between is a gripping read that finds its strength by asking us what’s more horrific: a ghost floating above a pool, a racist terrorist, or an abandoned teenager dying of AIDs? As ever, good horror offers a window into our fears—but great horror does more than that. It asks questions about society, what we value, what kind of reality we’re willing to tolerate, and what kind we should work toward.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! Come join them on the totally safe, undertow-free seaside that is Twitter!

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