Book review: The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black TomThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Victor LaValle takes one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most clumsily racist stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” and expands it into a novella that both builds on the original while dealing head-on with Lovecraft’s ill-informed and offensive take on race. The author does this by dividing the story into two parts, one from the perspective of police detective Malone, as in the original, and the other from the viewpoint of the titular Black Tom, also known as Charles “Tommy” Tester, a 20 year old living with his father in Harlem of 1924.

Tommy is both hero and villain, an agent of despair and a victim of senseless violence and racism. He and Malone cross paths when both encounter the enigmatic Robert Suydam, a man trying to unleash Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones on the world so that the oppressors may be wiped away while the oppressed are justly rewarded for awakening these elder gods.

The world LaValle depicts is one of easy cruelty and racial division, where hope is tamped down and then crushed, and songs play not to soothe souls but to help speed them along to a certain hell. He does this while effortlessly weaving in Lovecraft’s original characters and story and it is there that The Ballad of Black Tom is perhaps at its weakest, as the original material was rather thin to begin with.

Still, LaValle elevates the original far beyond what Lovecraft had achieved, creating a tragic tale that trades melodrama for something more human, even as the world is threatened by cosmic horrors.

If you enjoy Lovecraft’s work you’ll almost certainly enjoy this. LaValle’s prose is concise, sometimes wry and always on point. His expansion of the original simply works in every way you would expect. If you enjoy Lovecraft but have always been troubled by the racism weaved throughout so many of his stories, The Ballad of Black Tom comes even more highly recommended. LaValle has managed the difficult trick of both paying respect to and being scornful of a very flawed author.

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