Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Posted by DarkChaplain at 9/22/2016
People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?
This is another Lovecraft-inspired story I wanted to tackle. Tor has been putting out a bunch of them, so I figured I should read a few more of them after finishing The Litany of Earth. The Ballad of Black Tom, in my opinion, was an excellent read. Which hopefully says much with me being an HPL/Mythos nut...

The Story:
"People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?"

The Review:
The Ballad of Black Tom is, in essence, a re-imagined The Horror at Red Hook by H.P. Lovecraft. It aims to shift the focus of the tale, adds a different protagonist to the story and includes more Mythos-related themes than the original did.
Tonally, it is quite a different tale, while retaining the same core.

While I usually dislike dragging Lovecraft's xenophobic tendencies up in reviews, here they're worth noting. Red Hook was written from a position of ignorance of the cultural and ethnical melting pot in New York in the 1920s, and Lovecraft's own prejudices are reflected in his story. Victor LaValle, himself a black author who grew up enjoying Lovecraft's works, attempts here to both criticise HPL's narrow point of view in the story and to pay tribute to his legacy.

The resulting story is split into two sections: That of Charles Thomas Tester, and that of the original story's protagonist, detective Thomas F. Malone.

Tommy Tester is a 20-year young black man living in one of the non-white parts of New York, hustling to earn money to pay the bills and care for his sick father. He grew up seeing his father beaten down by life's circumstances and the racial prejudices and injustices. Of course, this also filters back to the duo, as they, in turn, are prejudiced against the white man as well.

LaValle managed to nail the time period well here. The social stigma of associating with the "Negroes" ("What would the neighbors say if this woman had Negroes coming freely into her home?") is put on blast here. The novella highlights the discrepancy between communities in the big city, and the different lifestyles between Harlem, Red Hook and the higher society in Queens and so on, and the extra scrutiny placed on non-whites as they pass from one district to another.

It manages to instill sympathy for Tom and his father, introduced them as genuinely good people down on their luck in a bad time in history, without exaggerating the situation or dragging it into the present. If anything, I felt that The Ballad of Black Tom put in context the high-class whining that is going on these days. Oh boy, I could write a whole essay on that matter...
Either way, LaValle created very human, genuine characters here, which stands in contrast to Lovecraft's characters who tended to dehumanize black people and looked at the other with large amounts of prejudice.

In the early chapters especially, Black Tom feels like a period piece, and would have been an easy-to-recommend tragedy about social issues about a hundred years ago. But then, the occult is an intrinsic part of the story, and that element only grows further as the author draws upon more and more of the Mythos themes, and a melancholic tale turns into an exciting thriller and sanity goes down a drain.

Enter Robert Suydam, antagonist of the original story and proprietor of many occult works and a wish of awaking the Sleeping King who lies dreaming at the bottom of the ocean. The name "Cthulhu" is only uttered once in the story, even though it is alluded to many times. That added another layer of mystery and tension for me, which is good, as a lot of new Mythos stories somehow demystify the cults and Outer Gods by throwing their names around too much. LaValle clearly understood that on some level, and his familiarity with HPL's works comes in handy when maintaining the shadowed, secretive nature of the themes.
Suydam wants to rule a post-apocalyptic world as a chosen of the Old Ones, and Tommy, who is taken in by the promises of money at first, quickly grows apprehensive at the prospect of bringing doom to the world. But then things change, tear at the reader's and character's heartstrings, and things turn towards detective Malone.

Malone, the protagonist of Lovecraft's original story, is depicted in a less prejudiced way than before. He is spiritually aware, which brings him in line with Lovecraft's character. The basic scenario that gets him involved remains in place, but Malone himself comes across as more genuine here.
While there were some changes to his traumatic experiences which were the basic premise of The Horror at Red Hook, I didn't think them bad by any means. Different, yet equally engaging.

A bigger theme I enjoyed reading in this novella was that of the "Outside", and the characters' fascination with it. They view a surreal, outside realm from a distance, afraid and captivated in equal measure. To me, that mirrors Lovecraft's own ideas. He was telling stories of horror, yet they all held some form of attraction for the characters, readers and the author himself. There was always a desire to get a hold of those unspeakable tomes, even as they shredded minds all around. In here, what was the "Outside" to Lovecraft, is taken into focus and turned around. Lovecraft, an outsider if there's ever been one, felt attracted to writing about things he didn't really understand, even feared, and Black Tom somehow crosses that barrier, for better or worse.

Seeing these previously established events occur through a different lens, and being moved so much closer to the root of the problem, turns a story that used to be inexplicable and strange, into one that remains strange yet also became much more personal, raising the stakes all around. There's more heart in here than you'd expect from familiarity with Red Hook, and while I strongly object to attempts to sanitize Lovecraft's cosmic horror to replace the inherent xenophobia of the whole Older-Gods-of-unspeakable-nature-will-return-to-bring-oblivion with sunshine and rainbows, which I have seen too often, none of that happens here. It is a genuinely good story, which respects what Lovecraft did right while commenting on his more extreme views.

Only one paragraph struck me as a more direct thump at HPL, though it made me chuckle and I took it with good humor, as a little easter egg.
A man originally from Rhode Island but now living in Brooklyn with his wife proved so persistent a pair of officers was sent to the man’s place to make clear he wasn’t welcome in New York. Perhaps his constitution was better suited to Providence. The man left the city soon afterward, never to return.

Those familiar with Lovecraft's life and history will obviously realize that this is a direct dig at the man himself, and his backwards views - even though they weren't quite so backwards in his days, as even The Ballad of Black Tom accounts for. What appears reprehensible through a modern lens might not have been, and indeed sadly was not, back when it was originally formed. LaValle doesn't attempt to either sweep that fact under the rug nor exaggerate it needlessly - and for that alone, he deserves my respect already.
But then, he also wrote a stellar novella of both cosmic and personal horror, which I am hugely thankful for.

The Ballad of Black Tom on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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