Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom - Victor LaValle

H.P. Lovecraft was a giant racist and all-around shitty human being, but it's utterly impossible to deny the man's tremendous influence on the modern horror genre, his ability to craft some damn fine stories, and the legacy his Cthulhu mythos has borne on many a reader and writer. There's a degree of freshness then, and certainly a bit of satisfaction, in Victor LaValle reinterpreting Lovecraft's short story The Horror at Red Hook to produce The Ballad of Black Tom.


Tom has been tasked with retrieving a book for the reclusive Ma Att, a job that eventually brings him into the orbit of two detectives and Robert Suydam, another reclusive sort who lives in a mansion in Flatbush. Inside this mansion is a peculiar library, and Tom becomes privy to a world he scarcely imagined, one that is quite a far cry from his Harlem roots. And that is all I'm going to say about the plot; if you want to know more, read the synopsis.


Set in 1920, LaValle is able to craft a serious and literary bit of cosmic/supernatural horror that brilliantly reflects on issues of race and class warfare. It's no secret that blacks and immigrants had it rough in 1920, and sadly we haven't progressed much further as an American society. Tom lives in a world marked by boundaries, where crossing over into a white community could be a death sentence at worst, or which could earn him a beating by the police if he's merely unlucky. The Ballad of Black Tom is an uncomfortable reflection of present-day America juxtaposed against an earlier period piece. Unarmed black men are killed by police, and the police themselves, modernized by Roosevelt, are practically an urban army ready to wage war against the minority population. Now, where have we heard about this before?


LaValle's novella is a beautiful work in its own right, and as a Lovecraftian-fueled horror story it's downright gorgeous. There's plenty of creepy crawly moments and eeriness to satisfy fright fans and get those dark imaginings churning, and it's a solid and welcome addition to the legend of Cthulhu. Tor Books has really been knocking it out of the park with their series of novellas, and of the few that I've read so far this title stands out as a particular highlight. Kudos to them, and most certainly to LaValle in particular for this fantastic read. Highly recommended.