“The more I read, the more I listened, the more sure I became that a great and secret show had been playing throughout my life, throughout all our lives, but the mass of us were too ignorant, or too frightened, to raise our eyes and watch.” (p.41)
As a prelude to reading this novella, I sought out and read H.P. Lovecraft’s 1926 short story The Horror at Red Hook. It isn’t essential to read this story first, but it does add background to LaValle’s novella. It is also pretty shocking for the sentiments its author so blatantly reveals. Here’s what I wrote about it on Goodreads:
“The Horror at Red Hook is infamous for being Lovecraft’s most racist tale. It’s a short story of black magic, human sacrifice, and a policeman chasing after his sanity. Dosed with some cringe-worthy xenophobia and the usual Lovecraftian purple-prose, it’s a forgettable story that doesn’t compare to his later, more famous tales.”
The Ballad of Black Tom is Victor LaValle’s re-imagining of the events depicted in Lovecraft’s short story. LaValle brings in some new characters, notably Tommy Tester, a young, black bluesman who shares an apartment in Red Hook with his father. When the story opens, Tommy is mixed up in the illegal ferrying of rare books, specifically books of an occult nature. His meeting with the mysterious Ma Att, a buyer of such books, foreshadows the strange and dangerous path Tommy’s life will follow from here.
“In the darkness of the house, something enormous rose, then swayed like the tail of a venomous snake. But Ma Att—the face she showed them—only smiled.” (p.77)
Tommy Tester is a strong lead character and makes a good focalizer for the story. We see 1920s Harlem through his eyes and experience the harassment he undergoes at the hands of the police and some of the locals. As well as facing the daily struggle of making enough to get by, Tommy has to deal with the racial prejudices of the time, carefully controlling himself when all he wants to do is lash out. LaValle’s writing makes you feel this frustration, building up the tension which will lead to the appearance of the titular Black Tom.
Two characters from Lovecraft’s original “Red Hook” story play major roles in The Ballad of Black Tom: Robert Suydam and Detective Malone. Robert Suydam is a wealthy white man who is deeply interested in the occult. He employs Tommy to play at his house during a party; a party which the bluesman will never forget. Malone is a detective who has been investigating some complaints made about Suydam. He meets Tommy by chance, and will go on to play a devastating role in Tester’s life.
“Mankind didn’t make messes; mankind was the mess.” (p.68)
This was my second time to read The Ballad of Black Tom. I definitely got more out of it this time, and I enjoyed it more. I think this was due to reading a few of Lovecraft’s short stories before I came back to this novella. I’ve been a fan of Lovecraft’s fiction since I was a teenager, but reading a Lovecraftian tale penned by such a highly-skilled, modern writer as Victor LaValle really highlighted the flaws in old H.P.’s storytelling. It’s not simply about the differences between 1920s fiction and fiction from 2016. It’s about how to write solid, believable characters speaking realistic dialog, and how not to pepper your prose with too many adverbs or adjectives.
“Something opened right there. I say a door, but I don’t mean a real door. Like a hole, or a pocket, and inside that pocket it was empty, black. […] Like the sky at night, but without any stars.” (p.104)
“What happened next was inexplicable, difficult to even remember. Black Tom did something; Malone heard something. A low tone suddenly played loudly, as if Black Tom had hummed a drone note inside Malone’s skull. The detective’s eyes lost focus.” (p.97)
Victor LaValle is a writer worth your attention, whether you are interested in Lovecraftian fiction or not. I was very impressed by his modern fairy tale The Changeling which I reviewed earlier this year. The Ballad of Black Tom is a gripping tale of supernatural fiction with a memorable setting, solid, believable characters, and moments of cosmic and earthly horror. Highly recommended!