The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a fantastic book. It’s a novella, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in impact, significance and emotional engagement. LaValle takes on the classic mythology of cosmic horror and crafts something new, compelling and utterly his own. It’s great.
The blurb reads:
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?
The Ballad of Black Tom is the sort of book I’d expect to see arise from a collision between Nick Cave and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The book is full of darkness, anti-heroes and villains that are intensified and rendered monstrous. It is a story of discrimination, racism, betrayal and murder. The monsters in this book are not only by products of stunted and intolerant social norms; there are monsters born from cosmic horror too. It’s an incredibly distinct and unique mix. There is a deep undercurrent of rage running through the veins of this book.
The book is bifurcated by two separate POV characters: The eponymous Black Tom, and a police Detective named Malone. This contrast aids in the contextualisation of inherent white privilege, and the uncomfortably entrenched and casual racism of New York in the 1920’s. This also addresses, indirectly, the problem of H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy. He is without doubt the father of cosmic horror, but he was also terribly racist. LaValle has intentionally transformed one of Lovecraft’s more overtly racist tales, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, and turned it inside out. LaValle subverts Lovecraft’s xenophobia and creates a story that is firmly within the narrative space of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror but is utterly his own.
Despite the malice and fury of the book, LaValle’s New York representative of the cultural melting pot that is America at it’s best and most diverse. Despite the stratified racial privilege, we glimpse what the city is, and what it will eventually become. We see the city as a place of rich diaspora, of migrating families and what becomes the new world roosts of old world gods. In this sense the book shares a few traits with Neil Gaiman’s fantastic novel ‘American Gods’. The pantheon that LaValle explores in this instance though is the cult of Cthulhu.
Charles Thomas Tester, aka Black Tom, is a wonderfully complex and sympathetic lead. I really loved his development and the tragedy of his story. It was visceral, chilling, cathartic but also incredibly sad. He spends his days hustling; making money any way he can to support his ailing father. He is sharp, intelligent and capable in a way that gives him edges that rub against the world and society he inhabits. LaValle depicts in Black Tom a man that rails against the boundaries the world has placed around him, and the injustice he suffers. His choices are unsurprising, and the tragedy of his losses throughout the book and Tom’s path are sobering.
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge fan of cosmic horror and stories written with the Cthulhu mythologies in mind. However much I love the tales of H.P. Lovecraft there is no denying the man was xenophobic. Writing like this is vital to continue the tradition of cosmic horror but to also repurpose the narratives and separate them from outmoded and disturbing models of racial stratification, to create a safe and welcoming narrative space that is inclusive and welcomes all readers and writers alike.