A few months ago, I read Matt Huff’s great Lovecraft Country, a fascinating horror novel that blended supernatural tropes and Lovecraftian nightmares with Jim Crow and American racial histories. It was a fascinatingly ambitious piece of horror, one that gave equal time to the horror of lynchings and to the nightmares that might lurk beyond the cosmos, and played them nicely off of each other. And although it was more conventionally plotted than I might have preferred, I couldn’t think of much else I’d read like that before.
But now, I’ve read The Ballad of Black Tom, in which Victor LaValle repurposes Lovecraft’s own story, hijacks the racism, and turns it into a true Lovecraftian nightmare – from the point of view of a black man in 1920’s America. And given Lovecraft’s own vile racial views – and the fact that the story LaValle has repurposed makes those views quite evident – that makes The Ballad of Black Tom even more ambitious than Lovecraft Country. Luckily, it’s more successful on pretty much every level – the tale is scarier, the politics more complex, and the writing better.
LaValle uses as his inspiration one of Lovecraft’s lesser tales, “The Horror at Red Hook,” which tells the story of Robert Suydam, an upper-class New Yorker who starts living amongst the – gasp! – immigrants of the Red Hook neighborhood in New York, largely to learn of their primitive, savage ways and their arcane rituals. (The story is available online here; it’s not exactly a great read on its own terms, and that’s without the hateful subtext that runs through it all. But it is worth reading to appreciate how perfectly LaValle upends it.) LaValle changes his focus, though, telling the story through the eyes of Charlie Thomas Tester, a young Harlem man who’s making ends meet with odd jobs and an ability to fake his way through a few songs. And when Tom gets involved with Robert Suydam’s mystical rites, The Ballad of Black Tom plunges full-bore into Lovecraftian nightmares and madness.
The Ballad of Black Tom walks a fascinating line between paying homage to Lovecraft and attacking him for his virulent views (indeed, it’s not a coincidence that the story’s most racist character is named Howard), and the mix speaks to LaValle’s mix of admiration and distaste for the man. After all, there’s little way to be a horror writer working today and not be aware of, or influenced by, Lovecraft, but it’s also jarring to begin reading his horror and suddenly be confronted with his racist, xenophobic worldview.
And yet, as much as I’ve talked about the subtext, none of that would matter if The Ballad of Black Tom weren’t such a great, crackling read. LaValle splits the book into two halves, and while I don’t want to give anything away, the understanding of what he’s setting up in the second half is fascinating, allowing LaValle to turn his subtext into text, and unite the dual horrors of racism and Lovecraftian nightmares into something rich, satisfying, and genuinely unsettling. Indeed, most of The Ballad of Black Tom is disturbing, great weird fiction; that it manages to be both in the Lovecraftian tradition (far more so than Lovecraft Country) and yet wholly, unmistakably modern is just one of its joys. Part psychological horror story, part anti-hero tale, part cosmic horror, LaValle has a lot going here, and mixes it all together to make a nasty, dark tale that’s well worth the short time it takes to read.