Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

by Victor LaValle





The Ballad of Black TomFor years I have agonized over the works of Cosmic Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  After I learned about his virulently racist views, I struggled with myself over whether or not to continue to read his stories.  Recent winners of the World Fantasy Award including China Mieville and NNedi Okorafor protested after being presented with a bust of Lovecraft.  Okorafor went so far as to write a scathing criticism of Lovecraft as well as the practice of giving a bust of him as an award, which can be read here.  Although this particular essay did not further complicate matters for me, reading correpsondence between him and famed fantasy writer Robert E. Howard, did.  Lovecraft was a unique writer, and created some rather unique characters and dynamics of horror.  He was so unique, in fact, that he is probably the only author in the horror sub-genre known as "Cosmic Horror".  Certainly there have been derivative works, and copycats, and fan fiction writers.  But of the day in which Lovecraft was most prolific, there were none others like him.  Which is what has made the reading of his works such a dilemma.

Once in a while someone comes along and turns a paradigm on its head.  They take something that inspires them, and reworks it and makes into something all their own.  Victor LaValle is one such author.  In a time when anything with tentacles, giant demons, or pasty, unremarkable, protagonists are considered "Lovecraftian"; much the same way that everything tastes like chicken, "The Ballad of Black Tom" is a truly original book about conjuring and sleeping, arcane evil.  I am loathe to even call this book an homage, and even less fond of the idea that it is Lovecraftian.  LaValle, in his artful depictions of black life in early 20th century Harlem, excels at navigating the nuances of bot the horrors of being  black man walking through Queens, as well as unspoken evils hiding in the shadows.  This is demonstrated so cleverly by the main character, Tommy Tester's, apprehension about being in Queens after a certain hour, an encounter with police slightly later in which one of the cops takes his money and advises him to get back to Harlem.  The daily, and mundane considerations of Tester, needing to hustle for a living and the choices he made to participate in that life, knowing that a more "respectable" job would likely land him in abject poverty, was another aspect that LaValle captures and uses throughout the story.  I call it artful because it is not a hamfisted statement about poverty in 1900s Harlem.  It is a subtley woven part of the story that adds dimension and texture to a genre while actively subverting what it has come to be known for.

urdustan           I have known of Sabina England for many years now and have followed her career and the trajectory of her artistic endeavors over that time.  From short films to live performances, the occasional cartoon, I have always been surprised at the scope and depth of her abilities and never disappointed.  When I learned that she was publishing an anthology of her fiction works I was immediately intrigued by the opportunity to sample yet another of her creative projects.

"Urdustan" is the title of a collection of short stories that spans several topics, from love and rejection, to Hassidic Jews and South Asian vampires.  I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the breadth of the subject matter, but after the second story any misgivings I had were immediately put to rest.  England is not a genre writer and it shows.  Vampires or no, every story contained in this collection is a story about human-ness.  This is something that many writers, particularly genre writers, seem to have lost.

     Kobo Abe


     I happened upon this title when a friend posted an article on Facebook about literary authors that had made forays into science fiction.  I perused the list with mild disinterest until I came upon one title written by Kobo Abe.  I've always had a thing for Japanese science fiction and since I'd never heard of this book I decided to investigate.  It took little more than reading the synopsis for me to make up my mind.  The concept was a definite hook for me.  But there were other factors involved in my decision making process as well. After making a few phone calls to local bookstores and doing a couple of searches online, I discovered that the book was out of print, and that the single run of the book was actually a translation.  When you add this to the fact that it might have made for an exciting treasure hunt for lost volumes, I couldn't resist.  However, my excitement was quickly deflated when I found the book on Amazon, for four US dollars in a matter of minutes.  The arrival of the book a few days later did much to reknew my enthusiasm.  It's severely flaking dust jacket, liver spotted pages, and ubiquitous smell of public library stacks were reminscent of my days as a child spent wandering said institutions in search of entertainment.



At the time I read my first Mickey Spillane novel, they had already gone out of fashion.  It didn't take long for me to move on to Mac Bolan and Magnum P.I..  And truthfully, I was never much into mystery novels.  But I thoroughly enjoyed "detective" novels.  Detective novels are less about the mystery and the endgame and more about the journey to the answer.  It's been many years since I read a detective novel, and I always wondered what would happen if someone ever managed to revive the genre.  An argument could be made that they never went anywhere.  And that is true, they never went anywhere.  I wanted to see a detective story for the age, a 21st century story where things such as the internet and cellular phones were more than simple affectations or props.  If you like detective stories, and even if you don't then it's time to set your egg timer and strap in, because "On the Head of a PIN" by J. Nelson Leith is a hardboiled detective fable.