The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There has been a resurgence of interest in H. P. Lovecraft of late, or possibly just a continued interest in the horror icon, maybe his influence has never waned. There have been both positive and negative aspects of this interest though. Several tribute anthologies of stories written in his style, or at least using his settings and characters, have been released. Then there was the World Fantasy Award controversy, with quite a few modern writers complaining about the visage of a known racist being used for that association's trophy. I've never read much Lovecraft, can't say I've liked those few stories, although I concede his stature in the realm of Weird Tales (both as a genre in general as well as that specific magazine). As far as I know, The Ballad of Black Tom has only been released on its own as part of Tor.com's novella program, not a part of any anthology. I haven't read any comments by LaValle concerning it, so I'm not sure if this should be considered an homage or a refutation of Lovecraft's work. What I do know is it features something Lovecraft would never have tolerated, an African-American main character.
This novella looks at the Lovecraft story "The Horror of Red Hook" from a different perspective. Can't recall if I had read it before, but I did just before reading LaValle's take. Like most Lovecraft, the prose is repetitive and verbose, but the story itself is interesting. New York police detective Thomas Malone has been traumatized by events he witnessed in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. The new story alters those events somewhat, while also looking at them from the perspective of Charles Thomas "Tommy" Tester, a black man from Harlem, later known as Black Tom. Malone had been involved in a twofold investigation of Robert Suydam, one dealing with family members concerned about his competency, the other in relation to possible criminal activities in Red Hook and Flatbush. Tommy comes to Malone's attention when Suydam approaches the Negro on the street as he sits strumming his guitar. Suydam offers Tommy a large sum of money to play at a party at his house, but his ulterior motive is for Tommy to retrieve a book the black man had delivered to another mysterious person a few days before. Suydam has been collecting rare books of arcane knowledge, in attempts to penetrate the veil and awaken the Elder Gods.
It's definitely better written than Lovecraft's story, lucid prose and a more straight-forward plot. LaValle illuminates the plight of a man of color in New York in the 1920s, one whose appearance outside the confines of Harlem elicits harassment from the police and civilians alike. It also seems eerily like what many black men must still experience today. I guess I should seek out LaValle's thoughts on the story, since I'm conflicted in my interpretation. In the latter half of the story Tommy comes under the influence of Suydam's magical incantations, transforming into Black Tom. Up to that point I had viewed him as a sympathetic character, but his later actions repelled me. Is the author saying that black men are just as susceptible as whites to the corrupting influence of power? Should this be read as a black power fantasy, with Black Tom the hero exacting revenge for the oppression of his people? In the context of Lovecraft's milieu, all humans, black or white, are insignificant to the gods, although he would be appalled at the notion anyone but a white man could wield the powers of the gods. That alone is reason enough to celebrate this story, although it still leaves me a little cold. I would have preferred for Tommy to prevail through his wit and courage alone, not through the influence of an uncaring god.
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