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books, Death, history, politics, Racism, society, storytelling, writing

Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

So, unlike many if not most spec fic writers, I never had a Lovecraft phase. I mean, I knew the name. But if I read anything until much later in life, it didn’t stick. So I hadn’t read The Horror at Red Hook, of which The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a retelling from the point of view of a black man.

Not that it’s required to enjoy this page-turner of a dark mystery novella set in ’20s-era Harlem and New York. Which is good, because I’m about three decades past the point where Lovecraft’s turgid prose and particular brand of cosmic horror was going to land. Victor LaValle, I’ll be reading more of.

Tommy Tester is a hustler and musician living in Harlem with his father, who makes his living playing music for white people and doing the odd odd job for them, too. When Robert Suydam, a mysterious and wealthy white man with a very strange plan to liberate New York’s poor and marginalized, hires him to play a party in his mansion, it opens the door (alright, eldritch portal) to a whole new (horrific) world for Tommy.

But it doesn’t shut any doors here, and, even in Harlem, racism is prevalent, aggressive, and, as ever for those on the receiving end, tragic. I’m trying not to spoil the books in these reports, so I won’t go too into detail. Suffice to say, Suydam’s interest in Tommy puts him in the crosshairs of two white detectives (one private, one NYPD), and good things do not happen as a result. For anyone, including the detectives.

For Lovecraft, the cosmic indifference of the elder gods was the most horrifying thing, the thing that tied together his mythos (well, that and the racism). But what can that indifference mean in the face of the active malevolence of traditional American racism? Faced with a choice between the two, which would you choose? If that malevolence robbed you of what you held dearest in the world, how might you feel about taking things (everything) away from those who robbed you? In The Ballad of Black Tom – and, I’d argue, in life – these are not rhetorical questions, and the answers will matter, if it’s the last thing they do.

Aside from the yeoman’s work The Ballad of Black Tom does inside the history of fantasy and horror as genres, the story succeeds on its own, and then some. Written in lucid, elegant prose, LaValle presents the reader with horrors fantastical and all-too-real, and lets you decide for yourself which is worse. That said, I found it a legitimate page-turner, a book that called me back after I’d put it down, and demanded to be read and finished and digested.

In sum, I expect those familiar with Lovecraft’s work, and how problematic it’s become as we as a society (slowly and excruciatingly) develop, will find this update to The Horror at Red Hook to be an illuminating recasting of the events of the story. Those, like me, who’ve spared themselves the agita of loving Lovecraft and wrestling with his less-admirable traits, will find it plenty rewarding as a story in its own right.

Which, if you think about it, is a hell of an accomplishment on LaValle’s part.

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About Dallas Taylor

Dallas Taylor is the grandson of a rum-runner, a valedictorian, a handyman, and a good Catholic girl. He lives and writes in Seattle, and builds things for a living in his spare time. In 2010, he attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop.

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