Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

As influential as Lovecraft’s work is, I’m not a fan. Lovecraft uses old-fashioned (and often xenophobic) language and paces his stories in such a way that there’s little tension. That said, he has a few creepy stories and I like how he writes the Old Ones as inconceivably ancient and alien entities that are indifferent to humanity. So when I heard about The Ballad of Black Tom—a Lovecraftian story without the Lovecraft—I had to read it. It’s a retelling of “The Horror at Red Hook,” which Lovecraft wrote with an extra shot of xenophobia after his Brooklyn apartment was burglarized. In an interview with the Lovecraft ezine, Victor LaValle says he intended The Ballad Black Tom as a corrective:

. . . I’m in Harlem on a pretty regular basis. What I wanted to get across most about uptown as a whole was the sense of life and community, exactly the things Lovecraft missed, or simply couldn’t see. His depictions of the immigrant neighborhoods in Brooklyn were so baffling to me because I simply couldn’t recognize the kinds of places he feared as exactly the kind of places I’m so happy I grew up in, and where I still live now. So my depictions of Harlem had to work as a kind of corrective. If Lovecraft seemed to be suffering blurred vision about these neighborhoods then I wanted my story to be like the contact lenses.

The Ballad of Black Tom begins with Tommy Tester delivering a small yellow book that catches fire in sunlight so occult elements are present from the start. He runs all manner of errands for cash. When a stranger, Robert Suydam, hears Tester playing his guitar on the street, he hires him to perform at his mansion. After Tester accepts the gig and a suspiciously large downpayment, the money is stolen by two men claiming that “[Suydam] is part of an ongoing investigation, so this is evidence.” (23) It’s not yet clear what Suydam is involved in, but there are other dangers in going to his mansion at night because it’s in a white neighborhood. Tester knows he’ll be followed and harassed.

At Suydam’s mansion, Tester doesn’t have to play for an audience just yet. Suydam has invited a group of immigrants to his house the following night and wants Tester as a one-man focus group to see how his words are received by “a man of the proper type.” (48) The point of his speech is that people like Tester lead miserable lives and they’ll be rewarded if they help Suydam wake the Sleeping King:

“The return of the Sleeping King would mean the end of your people’s wretchedness. The end of all the wreck and squalor of a billion lives. When he rises, he wipes away the follies of mankind. And he is only one of many. They are the Great Old Ones. Their footfalls cause mountains to topple. One gaze strikes ten million bodies dead. But imagine the fortunes of those of us who were allowed to survive? The reward for those of us who helped the Sleeping King wake?” (50)

This plan is ridiculous. It’s not that the Sleeping King is too terrible to be described—I’ve always liked that aspect of Lovecraft because the idea of seeing something that casts one’s understanding of the natural world into doubt is scarier than a massive, tentacle-faced thing. But Suydam ranting in his fancy library that giants from space (and the ocean) will lift up this random representative of the downtrodden… It’s corny, a little silly, and would be just another Lovecraft story without the addition of LaValle’s social commentary. Tommy Tester only thinks Suydam’s plan is rambling nonsense until his life is upended by an act of police violence:

His night with Robert Suydam returned to him, all of it, all at once. The breathless terror with which the old man spoke of the Sleeping King. A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive. . . . he saw the patrol cars parked in the middle of the road like three great black hounds waiting to pounce on all these gathered sheep. What was indifference compared to malice?

“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said. (65-66)

The Ballad of Black Tom is a quick read at 149 pages, but you don’t have to finish in one go because there’s a stopping point in the middle when the perspective shifts from Tester’s point of view to Malone’s, a detective. I do think this book—technically a novella—accomplishes its goal in retelling a Lovecraft story in a modern way, but I’m not sure it entirely succeeds as a “corrective” to Lovecraft. While Tester and his father come alive as individuals, the group of immigrants that Suydam invites to his mansion is a faceless bunch. None of them speak or are described individually; they share a single reaction to Suydam’s pitch. It’s one thing that Suydam treats them as a group with a single viewpoint—it shows a flaw in his character—but it’s strange that the narrative itself treats them this way, especially when it’s trying to be separate from Lovecraft’s style. And, to be clear, while Suydam promises relief (about which everyone might feel similarly), he also promises to be a “righteous ruler,” to which you would expect a level of dissent, but only Tester has a unique opinion. (76)

On the whole, though, The Ballad of Black Tom succeeds in being a compelling story that offers a new perspective and take on Lovecraft— LaValle could put his spin on all Lovecraft’s works and I’d read them. Despite a few serious moments, this is an entertaining read. There are rumblings of a TV show, which is hard to imagine because some moments seem like they won’t translate to the screen, but visual effects get better every year.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) Completely unputdownable. It also put the Shirley Jackson Award on my radar. If all winners are this solid, then I need to take a closer look at the list. Victor LaValle also won in 2009 for his novel, Big Machine, which is now on my TBR.

Image credit: Goodreads

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