The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle


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A cataclysm was happening on Parker Place, and belowground the air here smelled of sewage and smoke and the threat of divination.

Tor/Macmillan - 2016 - art by Robert Hunt, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill

Tor/Macmillan – 2016 – art by Robert Hunt, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill

New York. The Jazz Age. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to keep himself and his aging father fed, mostly panhandling by pretending to play the guitar. Or, like today, running errands for New York’s shady underbelly. An old woman in Queens wants an occult tome, and Charles agrees to bring it to her. What he didn’t promise was that it would include its last page, rendering the dangerous tome powerless… and bringing him some unwarranted occult attention. The wealthy Robert Suydam appears, asking Charles to play guitar at his mansion in Flatbush, and at the price he’s offering there’s no way Charles will say no… even when the private eye and a cop tailing Suydam shake Charles down and try to put him back in his place. They don’t even realize they’re messing with the wrong man, and Charles is pushed straight into the nefarious secrets hidden in Suydam’s library…

Some readers will find this fresh and new, but the reader who will get the most out of The Ballad of Black Tom is one who’s read and remembers a little story by H.P. Lovecraft titled “The Horror at Red Hook.” Which is, by far, Lovecraft’s worst story, whether you’re grading it by craftsmanship or by ethics. It’s no secret Lovecraft was a bigot; even a casual reader will see those occasional digs Lovecraft makes against those he considered “lesser peoples”—women, Africans, Asians, the Irish, pretty much anyone who wasn’t a white hetero Anglo-Saxon male. “Red Hook” is the bluntest, most virulent example of Lovecraft’s bigotry, focusing on the savage degradation of Red Hook’s society by ethnic inhabitants—mostly “Persian devil-worshippers”—equating the darkness of their skin as a source of horror. As Lovecraft scholar Peter Cannon said of it, “racism makes a poor premise for a horror story.”

And that was the story that Victor LaValle chose to tackle, flipping the script by re-writing the role of the migrants and their leader: there are reasons, after all, why they’d want to tear down the ruling white status quo. From Lovecraft’s tale of bigotry and prejudice, LaValle wrote a story of the fear and oppression that drove Charles Thomas Tester to change from a shifty huckster into Black Tom, murderous force of destruction and chaos. I have to say, the story was strongest for its first 2/3rds, as the last section switches point-of-view from the murderous Tom to follow a cop named Malone, who happens to be the protagonist in “The Horror at Red Hook.” But the writing is damn fine, and I’m impressed that the author managed to write both a condemnation and a homage to one of the genre’s more controversial figures. LaValle has penned a fine tale of Lovecraftian fiction, and its relation to “Red Hook” only strengthens its place in the Cthulhu Mythos.

It’s not to say that someone who isn’t familiar with “Red Hook” can’t enjoy Ballad of Black Tom, but they would be missing half the conversation—this is one of those stories where you get to whip out your lit-nerd cred and start using words like “metafictional” and “intertextuality” to discuss it. I don’t think it’s possible to discuss it in a vacuum, detached from “Horror at Red Hook,” when it’s written as both a homage and a rebuttal to Lovecraft’s earlier piece. And as a rebuttal, Ballad of Black Tom is excellent; it might not be the scariest horror story I’ve ever read, but LaValle evokes some creepy imagery and writes with downright wonderful prose. It’s short but effective, and a hard read to put down before I finished. And having read it, I’m looking forward to trying out one of LaValle’s novels, The Devil in Silver. At its price-point, The Ballad of Black Tom is a must for fans of Lovecraftian fiction who wouldn’t mind if the author’s racism saw its comeuppance.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.

Book Details
Title: The Ballad of Black Tom
Author: Victor LaValle
First Published: 2016
What I Read: ebook, 2016
Price I Paid: $2.99 (MSRP, cheap!)
MSRP:  $12.99 pb / $2.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 0765387867 / B0166PX1Z8