REVIEW: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

Star Rating: **** 4/5

Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Fantasy
Subgenre: Weird (or New Weird)
Review by Silicon

Intro

I’m going to start this review a little differently: with a link to an interview of the author.

Despite being such a short book, LaValle’s story is a highly complex one. The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling, a subversion of HP Lovecraft’s infamous The Horror at Red Hook, a disgustingly racist rant thinly disguised as a story.  I’m not going to review that piece of shit in this post (ohhhh, but I have PLANS, plans with graphs, for the future), and if you’re curious about just how bad it is I’m linking  a Storify of my livetweeting while reading the thing: here.

Essentially, Red Hook centers on the main character’s dislike, fear, and misunderstanding of the immigrant (and non-immigrant PoC) community in Brooklyn. Black Tom is LaValle’s answer to Lovecraft’s bigotry. From the interview:

Where Lovecraft would’ve seen an enigma I could say these were people I knew. They were complicated but not mysterious. What if I reimagined Lovecraft’s old story from their point of view? What if I made one of them the engine of the tale? How much would change if the folks used to playing the background came center stage instead?

This is something LaValle absolutely succeeds in.

Plot

The Ballad of Black Tom follows the character of Charles Thomas Tester, aka Tommy aka “Black Tom”, a black man living in Harlem who supports his ailing father by taking odd, magical jobs around New York City. On one fateful day, he meets a white man named Robert Suydam, who wants to hire Tommy to perform in and be a part of a mysterious event at his house–a project Tommy finds is unearthly, frightening, and dangerously powerful. And that’s all I’m gonna summarize because it is really hard to write about this book without spoilers.

If you’ve read Red Hook, you know it starts out centered entirely on the character of Malone, and his PTSD from the terrifying events he witnessed during his investigation into Suydam’s doings. LaValle very significantly does not even mention Malone until we’ve been immersed in Tommy’s world, the world that Malone–and Lovecraft–find so utterly incomprehensible. And when Malone shows up, he’s a side character–without agency–looking on as Tommy handles a detective’s contrived aggression.

This is an excellent example of how LaValle subverts Lovecraft’s original tale. Black Tom really feels like as if you took Red Hook, turned it inside-out, and kept only the bare bones of the story’s plot while completely re-imagining the flesh, the heart of the story.

Comparison

To be honest, LaValle GIVES the Red Hook story a heart, one we can connect to and understand, in the character of Tommy Tester. In Red Hook, Malone is constantly afraid of the faceless mass of Red Hook residents, who he does not even see as human. In Black Tom, these people are the heart and soul of the story–a grounding force, a community, that Tommy feels safe and comfortable and accepted in.

Something I really liked about Black Tom is the way its theme really is understanding, empathizing, while Red Hook is all about fearing the Other. Example: when Tommy and his father visit the Victoria Society, a Caribbean social club. Tommy initially had described the club as a den of illegal activity, a place where the most hardened criminals go. Now, actually there, Tommy feels remorse as he realizes he had been harboring assumptions about immigrants from the Caribbean which were untrue. He realizes that they exist in a whole world similar to his own, with similar hopes and aspirations, and not as mere caricatures that gossip had painted them. This was a really lovely scene, one of my favorites in the book.

Where Malone has only amorphous, hysterical fears unattached to reality, Tommy’s fears are painfully real. The descriptions of Tommy’s interactions with police, with white men, ring SO DAMN TRUE especially considering today’s insane racial injustice problem. Malone imagines terrors based on his own inability to empathize with People of Color. Tommy faces real consequences–harassment, illegal confiscations of property, violence–when he does not act completely submissive in the presence of white men.  You may think I’m making an inflated comparison, but hilariously even in Lovecraft’s own Red Hook, nothing happens to Malone despite all the time he spends feeling uneasy around Red Hook residents. He just has a few bad dreams. Tommy faces real danger.

I am not going to spoil SHIT. But let’s say the Inciting Incident is so raw, so extremely parallel to today’s tragedies, that it took my breath away.

The second half of the novella has a significant change–we switch to Malone’s PoV, and Tommy becomes Black Tom, seen only from the outside now. This half more closely parallels Lovecraft’s original, with Malone’s biases and prejudice directing his actions. However, we have a crucial insight now–we already know and understand the world that Malone is still so confused by, we can understand why events unfold that in Red Hook are so baffling in their lack of motivation.

In Lovecraft’s Red Hook, evil is a sleeping, otherworldly being. Evil is the unknown, given a form by his crude sketches of the Red Hook community he cannot understand. Evil is bringing down an inhuman power which does not care about human life, which consumes indifferently to our suffering. But in Black Tom, evil is not an eldritch power–as Tommy says:

What was indifference compared to malice?

Human malice is shown to be so much greater than otherworldly indifference. A significant message, especially given Lovecraft’s own clearly evident prejudice, which saturates his Red Hook piece and obscures even the story itself.

Writing Style

LaValle’s writing style is very unfrilled, plain and succinct. He says what he means to say and doesn’t spend words embellishing the events that unfold, leaving them raw and piercing. Tommy’s reactions and thoughts are described from a slightly reserved close third POV which works very well for this story and parallels the Red Hook POV style. Though, ultimately, the Red Hook story and LaValle’s Black Tom have very different writing styles–LaValle does not spend nearly as much time in lingering description as Lovecraft, for example.

One element I think LaValle especially excels at is “show, not tell” reactions. Though he does not explicitly state what Tommy feels often, we can certainly imagine and empathize with what he feels throughout the book. The terrible events that unfold have a special horror because we can SEE the character’s reactions, and imagine their internal state. With single, perfectly placed sentences, LaValle does an excellent job at that difficult task of implicitly directing a reader’s thoughts without outright stating what he wants them to think about.

Conclusion

There is no way I have done, or could do this story justice in this review. This is one of those deep, layered stories that needs significant analysis to fully extract all meaning. I really think Ballad of Black Tom should be treated as one of those classics we read in English classes. It’s certainly as complex.

Black Tom masterfully subverts an extremely difficult, tremendously problematic story by one of the biggest names in Horror. But it’s much more than just a retelling. It’s a reimagining, a reclaiming, a fundamental redoing that takes the worst parts of Lovecraft’s racism and shows how his incomprehensible caricatures are actually people. Are a COMMUNITY. It shows us how unimaginable evil isn’t actually an otherworldly force, but the capacity for hatred that lies within humanity itself.

“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.

There’s so much more in here that I would love to touch upon, but I am going to instead recommend other sources. Firstly, LaValle’s own interviews give deep insight into his aims and aspirations while writing this remarkable story. Secondly, check out the reviews already posted, and those to come, in #DSFFBookClub, where we’re discussing this book right now! Finally, @Cecily_Kane kindly linked me a BRILLIANT analysis of Black Tom and Red Hook by Vajra Chandrasekera at Strange Horizons: here. I highly recommend you read it, it certainly goes a lot deeper than my review and touches upon a lot of extremely important points.

This is a bit of an unconventional review for me, but it’s an unconventional book! I certainly recommend this story to everyone, especially if you’ve read Lovecraft. If you love the New Weird fantasy/horror subgenre, this is a must.

Reading Black Tom, and Red Hook have inspired me to seek out more Lovecraft subversion tales. After reading Red Hook, I’m way more interested in reading these than Lovecraft himself. If you’re curious about that racist as fuck story (yes, I am still REALLY pissed at Red Hook), you can read it for free here, though I recommend a LARGE glass of wine as accompaniment.

Join in the discussion at #DSFFBookClub, and let me know your thoughts on Lovecraft and The Ballad of Black Tom below in the comments!

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4 responses to “REVIEW: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

  1. I love that you curse in your reviews. >.<
    Great post! Thanks for making it lengthy and meaty like I did mine. This really was a slim but powerful book. You're right about how Malone's part reads differently after having seen Tommy depicted so brilliantly and sympathetically. The tone would have been entirely different if we started the story off with Malone.

    I look forward to more discussion on August 15th!

    Like

  2. This review probably gave me the best sense of what the novella is about and why I should read it. I'm still surprised it's such a short book! Do you know if there ARE other Lovecraft stories writers have flip flopped? — GrabTheLapels.com

    Like

  3. The Victoria Society scene and the quote about indifference versus malice affected me much as they have affected you. It is amazing how complex this book is in spite of its size. Indeed a testimony to the power of words. Wonderful, detailed review.

    Like

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