The Ballad of Black Tom: A powerful reimagining of a weak Lovecraft tale

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The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValleThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

In the late 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft went to visit New York City. He was appalled — appalled! — to discover that the city, especially certain neighborhoods, was crowded with immigrants and people with dark skin. Don’t take my word for it; here are his own in a letter to his friend Clark Ashton Smith, and from a Lovecraft story:

… young loafers and herds of evil-looking foreigners that one sees everywhere in New York.
(Letter to Clark Ashton Smith)

From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of a hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through.
(“The Horror at Red Hook”)

Lovecraft’s fear and bigotry inspired his story “The Horror at Red Hook,” which was published in Weird Tales in 1927. Lovecraft himself said that it was not one of his better stories. In fact, it’s at least two different stories sort of mashed up and mortared together with lots of derogatory remarks about the many groups of people Lovecraft didn’t like.

Strangely, even terrible literary work can inspire good work, and that’s what has happened here; 89 years later, Victor Lavalle has given us the novella The Ballad of Black Tom, a reimagining of Lovecraft’s tale. The Ballad of Black Tom includes a police detective based on Malone from the original story, but the main character is a Black man in his twenties, trying to make a living in the Big Apple.

Charles Thomas Tester, who goes by Tommy to some, lives with his father, Otis. He makes money various ways: playing guitar for tips and singing, although he doesn’t sing well, and once in a while by delivering magical artifacts to people who know about those sorts of things. Tommy’s ability to create a character for himself simply by wardrobe or demeanor brings him to the attention of the wealthy recluse Robert Suydam, who hires him to play for a party at his decaying mansion. When Tommy arrives, no one is there but Suydam, who explains why he chose Tommy:

I saw that you understood illusion. And that you, in your way, were casting a powerful spell. I admired it. I felt a kinship with you, I suppose. Because, I too, understand illusion.

Suydam is not a comfortable person to be around, though, and he intends to use his magic to raise the King who sleeps at the bottom of the sea, the King of the Elder Gods. And doors in his house open onto other scenes and places.

Tommy, who has started the journey to becoming Black Tom, uses illusion not for power but as a survival technique. Through the characters of Detective Malone and the brutal private detective Horace, we see just how precarious the life of a Black man is, even if he is just walking on a sidewalk in the middle of the day. When Malone and Horace stop Tommy, Horace takes the money Tommy has just been given.

He slipped the money into his slacks and watched Tommy to gauge his reaction.

“Police business,” Tommy said coolly, and stopped thinking that the money had ever been his.

LaValle’s language is masterful, ranging from deeply, consciously atmospheric, as when we are in Suydam’s strange moldering mansion with its cavernous library, to spare and precise when we follow other characters through the story. The dialogue has the beat and snap of real speech. He chose the length of the story well, and the pacing flows gracefully as things around Tommy, and Malone, get stranger and stranger.

It is the characters who matter the most here. The horror, and tragedy, of The Ballad of Black Tom is that, unlike many a Lovecraftian character, Black Tom does not lose his humanity. At the end he is still a loving son, a friend, and a human, who knows he has done terrible things, but cannot quite bring himself to regret them. Shining like a ray of light through this whole story is the love between Tom and his father Otis, and Otis’s gifts to his son before Tom goes to Suydam’s house are vital parts of the plot.

Like Robert Suydam, Detective Malone is a character borrowed from Lovecraft. In the Lovecraft story, he is the hero, surviving a terrible (if barely comprehensible) series of events. In The Ballad of Black Tom, he is far from heroic. While Malone does not participate much (at least at first) in the exploitation and abuse of the Black characters, as Horace does, he stands aside and does nothing while it happens in front of him. As the story progresses, it’s clear he approves of it, or at least considers it status quo. Malone is an unwilling witness to horrors at the end of the story; in fact, Malone has witnessed horrors throughout the story and done nothing.

The horror elements are perfect here; from the Supreme Alphabet, which we encounter early in the story, to Suydam’s library with its princely chair, to the strange goings-on in the Red Hook basement at the end of the tale. Other elements are perfect, too: bootlegged liquor; the proper hat; the description of the guns Malone orders used in the assault on the Red Hook building all capture the mid-1920s. Balanced against the eldritch horror of alternate realms is the daily horror of racial inequality and the casual way it plays out.

Even the cover art, created by Robert Hunt, is beautiful. If you enjoy well-written horror where the terror is moral and spiritual as much as gory or slimy, with realistic characters whose decisions, while they might be flawed, are human and plausible, you will enjoy this book. And if you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll probably like it too. I had not read “The Horror at Red Hook” before reading The Ballad of Black Tom, and I didn’t need to. This story pays homage to Lovecraft’s best elements but stands alone. It’s powerful.


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. What an excellent antidote to Lovecraft’s narrow point of view! Your review helped me to make up my mind, and I’m definitely going to buy this instead of borrowing a copy. :D Thanks!

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