the keeperCertain expectations come with the idea of Black horror, not all of them fair to the work put into them. Given the history of race relations in the United States, it would seem difficult not approach Black horror with stories that directly condemn it, or at least provide commentary on it. And yet, isn’t that conducive to limiting the genre’s storytelling capabilities for a specific community of writers and creators?

Tananarive Due and Steve Barnes along with illustrator Marco Finnegan throw a pretty big wrench into all this with their graphic novel The Keeper (published by Abrams Books), a story that recognizes the Black experience’s own set of struggles with the intention of weaving them into an original horror idea that doesn’t want to merely settle on well-trodden trauma to get at something truly terrifying.

The book focuses on Aisha, a Black girl that loses her parents after a tragic car accident that takes both their lives. She’s placed under the care of her grandmother, an old woman that wears a necklace with a little black vial that holds a secret that’s been passed down for generations. Aisha is happy to be with family, but the grandmother’s health is failing and she’s made it so that the thing that lives in the vial can take over for her.

The more time you spend taking in Due, Barnes and Finnegan’s character work the harder the horror will hit. The story hinges on the strength and relatability of its characters, on how they contend with the problems that haunt them on both a social and at a personal level. To make this part of the story ring true, the creative team managed to put together an intricate cast of complicated characters with unique motivations that forego ‘black and white’ approaches to story in favor of large grey areas that lead to very different places.

the keeper

Aisha, for instance, is confronted with police profiling, systemic indifference, and the fear of being lost within government programs and regulations that set her up more for failure than success. One of the biggest points of stress for the character, in this regard, falls on her worries her grandmother’s health deteriorates to the point that child services will be called to intervene and place her in a foster home. There’s a very powerful moment early on in which the grandmother looks at Aisha and pleads with her, in a very nuanced way, not to fall victim to the system, to always choose family over anything when creating a sense of home for herself.

Fear of familial fracture lies at the heart of The Keeper, but not necessarily from within the family unit. The threat of this, in large part, comes from exterior forces, until it doesn’t. In comes the entity that escapes the grandmother’s vial to protect Aisha.

Due, Barnes, and Finnegan opt for a shapeless black mass for their monster, a thing that can twist, expand, and swarm around people to consume them for survival. While its relationship with Aisha is founded on protection, the idea is that such services come at a cost. Like some of horror’s most memorable monsters, the entity in The Keepers stands as a metaphor without being entirely taken over by it. It speaks to the hardening of a people that can’t trust the institutions that are supposed to protect them, a decision that develops a hunger for overprotection from within the family.

Finnegan’s art captures this well, going for an overall world design that prioritizes realism to accentuate its characters’ body language plus the overwhelming quality of the entity’s presence. Characters look and feel lived-in, as if they carry personal histories that predate the start of the narrative. They each contain volumes of experience and they express it in their mannerisms and expressions just as much as in the dialogue they partake in. The result is a fully realized world that upholds both its metaphors and its intentions to provide a legitimate horror experience that can frighten readers on its own merits.

the keeper

The Keeper is a very real and emotional read that doesn’t lose sight of its desire to also inspire terror. There’s a haunting at the center of it that comments on the doom-filled social institutions black communities protect themselves against coupled with a formidable source of terror in the form of dark entity that invites questions about the protections family can provide. It carves a spot for itself between movies like Candyman (original and remake), The People Under the Stairs, and His House, all movies that either contain some kind of horror passed over from generation to generation or a focus on family and the pressures they face from an unkind and unjust world. The Keeper is a statement on what the future of Black horror can be, and you’d do well to read it.