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.


Additionally, the protagonists is far more active as a character than anything I have seen in other Cosmic Horror works.  Many people have stayed true to the Lovecraftian formula of the narrator who seems to be an uninvested observer even as he is being consumed by the thousand mouths of a Yog Sothoth.  Tester takes an active role in what is happening around him from the very first.  Having understood that he was delivering something of considerable supernatural power to someone he didn't know, he makes sure it cannot be used for its only intended purpose. Granted, this act draws him into the larger dilemma, putting himself and his father at risk.  But one never gets the sense that things are simply happening to him.  LaValle paints not only Tester, but other characters in the story with bold colors.  Tester himself is a character who can't sing but carries a guitar case around as part of his dodge.  His friend Buckeye is another, as well as the famous madam who runs the Victoria Club.  All of these characters conjured images of a sort of supernatural Ernie Barnes, or Cosmic Horror style Emory Douglas.  They are people that LaValle could have seen in his own neighborhood growing up, which is what made them so compelling and real.

The creation of this work did not offer any kind of license to read Lovecraft.  No book has the power to absolve an artist of their racism.  And no art has the power to absolve someone of their desire to read works by Lovecraft.  Some of us can divorce ourselves from the despicable attitudes of Lovecraft, but some of us find it diffiult, particularly when his views were made plain in works such as "The Horror at Red Hook".  What this book does, is creates a portrayal that not only invites ALL people into a narrative of African American, but also resets the clock on a sub-genre that has been controversial for years now.  It provides us with not only an alternative, but a better one.  Don't buy this book expecting the author to deliver you from some moral purgatory.  And don't buy the book because the author and the protagonist are black.  Buy the book because it is an excellent read, and a masterful and modern incarnation of Cosmic Horror.

This book is novella length and therefore, a comparatively quick read.  We could not be more emphatic in our praise of this.  If anything it's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  The story beguiles you quickly and leads into that suspension of disbelief.  And before you know it, it's over.  If I have one criticism it's that the book could have been longer than novella length and that is only because I wanted to read more.  Buy the book!  Click on the link below to get it from Amazon now.