The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Tor.com, 2016; 160 pp
Reviewed by Timothy O'Donnell
Victor LaValle’s latest novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, is a proper homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s controversial short story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” A remix of modern political and social movements woven faithfully into an altered version of the source material, The Ballad of Black Tom offers a voice to the one perspective that Lovecraft himself perhaps feared more than the eldritch horrors of Cthulhu—that of the “Negro elements” of Brooklyn. Lovecraft is famous for his racism and xenophobia, a sentiment he was apt to express in both his fiction and letters, but LaValle doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, opting instead to critique Lovecraft and his age through the modern lens of political movements like #BlackLivesMatter.
Told in two parts, The Ballad of Black Tom follows Charles Thomas Tester, a Jazz Age hustler living with his father in Harlem, who, between busking and delivering arcane items to angry sorceresses, is just trying to eek out a living. It’s after one of these deliveries that Tester is approached by Robert Suydam, the wealthy recluse with an eye for the arcane who plays prominently in “The Horror at Red Hook.” Suydam offers Tester a gig-playing guitar at a soiree in his Red Hook mansion with promises of ancient secrets and pay that will set Tester and his father up for months. After accepting the gig, Tester is approached by two New York City detectives bullying him for information on Suydam, whose relatives are trying to put him away for his association with the criminal underworld of New York City.
Private detective Mr. Howard is a racist bulldog of a man who treats the Negroes of New York like the animals he believes they are, a not-so-subtle representation of police violence whose repercussions still echo. He’s shadowed by Detective Malone, the protagonist of Lovecraft’s original story, and the focus of the second half of The Ballad of Black Tom. Malone is presented as an empathetic ally, a studious, sometimes compassionate man with a nose for the arcane. In contrast to Howard and his violent tactics, Malone may seem like a hero, but his inaction and lack of understanding what Lovecraft calls “seas of dark, subtle faces” make Malone a man with the power to step in who only steps aside. To say more is to give away one of the more satisfying endings I’ve read in genre in a long while, an organic ending that eschews tricks for universal truths.
Throughout, LaValle’s language crackles with a modern energy and cadence that emulates the Gothic horror of Lovecraft without feeling old-fashioned, a sigh of relief for readers who find the latter too stuffy or long-winded. LaValle winks and nods his way through the novella, a treat for fans of the original story. While I question LaValle’s perspective switch halfway through—Tester’s story is far more engaging and dynamic compared to Malone’s—it’s an interesting jump back to Lovecraft’s original “hero,” presenting The Ballad of Black Tom as a story that speaks from all sides, not a bullhorn projecting one voice, but a crowd of people of all colors and stripes shouting into the void. Here, LaValle shows us that while times change, ancient evils stay the same, whether it’s the eldritch hordes of The Sleeping King, or racism in an increasingly multicultural America.