Much has been made in recent years about H.P. Lovecraft’s racism and how it bled into his work, but none of that conversation has been nearly as poignant or entertaining as Victor LaValle’s response “The Ballad of Black Tom” ($12.99, Tor).
I’ll dispense with the elephant first. On the subject of Lovecraft’s racism, I certainly think it’s unfortunate, but I also don’t think you can hold anything from nearly 100 years ago to modern standards. Our heroes in any space are not often what we would like them to be, but does Lovecraft's racism destroy the legacy of his work? I don’t think so, and though he makes his misgivings plain in the dedication, I don’t believe LaValle does either.
"The Ballad of Black Tom” gives us a quite different take on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook,” which has been singled out as one of his worst offenders when it comes to race. LaValle puts us in the shoes of Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler from Harlem who gets pulled into a strange and dangerous world after he acquires a book of the Supreme Alphabet for a mysterious woman in Queens named Ma Att.
A strange turn of events leads to him playing music at a party for the rich, eccentric Robert Suydam, despite the fact that Tester’s not a great musician and only uses it as a cover for his hustles. Before the party, Suydam introduces him to the idea of “The Sleeping King” a monstrous figure that he wants to return to the world, with the hustler’s help. Tester thinks him crazy and wants nothing more to do with him, but when a couple of detectives that he’s already run afoul of come looking for the missing page of Ma Att’s book, the world shifts violently for our protagonist.
Rather than looking down from above on the immigrants and ethnic populations in New York as Lovecraft’s original did, LaValle’s work puts us right in the center of them, giving us the color and flavor of the communities through Tester. It also brings the racism of the time into quite brutal focus for both the reader and the characters, particularly in Tester’s defining moment.
Tester begins the story as a quite interesting character all on his own, but when he goes through his crucible, he comes out the other side absolutely fascinating. Once the viewpoint switches to Lovecraft’s original viewpoint character Detective Malone, and we see Black Tom through different eyes, there’s a power and mystique that we didn’t see before. He shifts from a character that I liked to one that I genuinely want to read more about. I’m not sure where LaValle can go from here, but I’d love to see another tale of Black Tom at some point in the future.
While the social statement is important in the book, it doesn’t work if LaValle can’t deliver the goods in story and atmosphere. He does. In the tale’s climactic scene, LaValle fantastically captures that sense of creepy unease and unbridled madness that was Lovecraft’s stock in trade. While a statement, it’s also a great story.
Despite its commonalities, “The Ballad of Black Tom” is much more than a retelling of Lovecraft’s tale through a black character’s eyes, and stands as both a great tribute and critique of one of horror’s undisputed masters.