The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
“What was indifference compared to malice?”
“I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”
Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) is a timely work of Weird fiction that shows how a talented writer can use the tools and motifs from the Weird fiction toolbox to create an utterly modern take on the cosmic horror story, even as it wrestles with the legacy of Weird fiction and its most iconic proponent. LaValle, an African American writer, dedicates the novella to H. P. Lovecraft, “with all my conflicted feelings”.
Set in the background of “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), The Ballad of Black Tom cleverly uses the scaffolding of one of Lovecraft’s most explicitly racist stories to show up the flaws and limitations in the man’s worldview, whilst celebrating the power of his imagination as a writer. The novella works both as a heartfelt and powerful dissection of Lovecraft’s work, and as a vibrant and chilling work of Weird fiction in its own right. It manages to build something open-minded and engaging from the paranoid mess of its source material.
“The Horror at Red Hook” shows Lovecraft at his worst. The story of Thomas Malone, a sensitive police detective who uncovers a plot by old eccentric Robert Suydam. Suydam wants to unlock secret rituals for rejuvenation and immortality from obscure cults propagated by immigrants to New York. From its story of a white man manipulating people of colour and their luridly misinterpreted religious practices, to the deeply objectionable language used to describe New York’s immigrant community, “The Horror at Red Hook” is an unpleasant and offensive little story that exposes Lovecraft’s irrational fear of other cultures.
It’s also structurally a mess, presenting one of Lovecraft’s least coherent or well-conceived plots. LaValle uses the key elements of Lovecraft’s story, particularly Suydam’s attempt to dabble with the forces of cosmic dread that run through all of Lovecraft’s work, and Malone’s attempt to uncover his plot, and jettisons what he doesn’t need. This makes for a much more coherent narrative, and allows LaValle to play with Lovecraft’s fascination with madness and unreliable narrators, which itself reflects LaValle’s interest in background and perspective, to tie the two stories together.
The Ballad of Black Tom tells the story of Charles Thomas Tester, an African American living in Harlem in the 1920s who makes a living through hustling, using the cover provided by posing as a blues musician to smuggle occult texts. Whilst providing a witch with a copy of the Supreme Alphabet, he meets Robert Suydam, who offers him a large amount of money to play at a party at his house. Tester soon discovers that Suydam is flirting with the idea of stirring up the mistreated immigrant population of New York into helping him summon Cthulhu, so that he can serve as the leader in the new world ruled by the Ancient Old Ones, and he needs Tester to be his second in command. However Tester’s involvement with Suydam puts him in the sights of Thomas Malone, who, as per the original story, is investigating a series of kidnappings in Red Hook that are leading him towards Suydam’s terrible secret.
LaValle’s genius here is in contrasting Lovecraft’s fear of a vast cosmos indifferent to humanity as personified by his Cthulhu mythos with Tester’s experience of systematic racism living as an African American in 1920’s New York, something that is still all too relevant in the United States today. Tester hustles for a living because he has seen his father physically wrecked by a low paid job and then kicked out when he was no longer able to do it. He understands that there is no way in the current system for him to earn a fair wage doing a legal job.
Tester is harassed on the street by Malone and the policeman Mr. Howard – named after Robert E. Howard, pulp contemporary and friend of Lovecraft, best known for creating Conan and also a harbourer of racist views – who make it clear that Tester will only ever be seen by them as a criminal and that he can expect no help or protection but only antagonism from them. While investigating the Suydam case, Mr. Howard shoots Tester’s father, believing him to have been holding a gun when the old man was only holding his guitar. Tester finds himself driven to the position where, when faced with the hatred and discrimination of white America, the indifference of Cthulhu seems mild by comparison.
The first half of the book is told from Tester’s point of view, but for the second part of the book, LaValle switches to Malone’s viewpoint. This is a powerful narrative choice, as we begin to see how Malone’s perspective as a white detective colours his view of the events unfolding in the story, and eventually lead to the version of the story reported by Lovecraft as “The Horror at Red Hook”. By this time, Tester has taken control from Suydam, choosing to regain his agency by unleashing Cthulhu on the world and taking control of dark magical forces.
However Malone, because of who he is, cannot accept that Tester, or Black Tom as he is now calling himself, could be in charge and not the white man Suydam. A glimpse of an African American man in charge of his own destiny is as much a threat to Malone’s worldview as a glimpse of the Elder Gods. Having the veil of the world stripped away to reveal a deeper reality underneath proves to be too much for Malone, and in true Lovecraft protagonist style when faced with the truth he goes mad. “The Horror at Red Hook” is the coping mechanism, the paranoid fantasy he has come up to explain the events he witnesses in a way that he can understand.
LaValle expertly weaves his story through the real world New York locations and landmarks that Lovecraft uses in his original story. However where the more deprived areas of Lovecraft’s New York are places of terror, LaValle invokes a bustling metropolis with a thriving culture where people from all over the world mix together. Tester himself even has some of his preconceptions about the immigrant community shattered when he visits his friend’s club, which is far from the place of vice and debauchery he’d been expecting, but simply a place where the newcomers go to meet friends and eat food cooked in the style of their homelands. However, Tester’s visit to Suydam’s wealthy neighbourhood in Flatbush is stricken through with terror, as he faces the suspicions, harassments and threats of wealthy white American men who don’t want to see him in their neighbourhood.
The original story does not invoke Cthulhu, but by bringing Lovecraft’s most iconic creation into the story, LaValle both increases the stakes of the story and makes it clear that he is in dialogue not just with “The Horror At Red Hook” but with Lovecraft’s entire legacy. Throughout the novella, LaValle’s affection and appreciation of Lovecraft’s work in spite of all of Lovecraft’s flaws are apparent. LaValle eschews Lovecraft’s instantly recognisable style in favour of his own voice, which is much more suited to the story. However The Ballad of Black Tom is truly Lovecraftian. LaValle lovingly invokes the appropriate sense of encroaching inevitable cosmic doom, from the wonderfully imaginative scene in Suydam’s library where Tester gets his first glimpse of Cthulhu to the story’s chilling end. LaValle demonstrates that it is possible to be highly critical of and to condemn Lovecraft’s horrendous racism whilst appreciating the man’s imagination and using those elements in a creative and engaging way to write Weird fiction with a much more progressive and relevant outlook.