Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

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Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

To H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.

The setting is 1920’s New York, in the busy neighborhood of Harlem and the nearby port neighborhood of Red Hook. A good-hearted hustler is drawn into the schemes of the wealthy and eccentric Robert Suydam, who’s plotting to raise an ancient horror from the deeps.

The Ballad of Black Tom…is not by H.P. Lovecraft, but fans of Lovecraft will recognize elements from his novella The Horror at Red Hook. Author Victor LaValle uses Lovecraft’s story as a framework, showing the events from the viewpoint of Tommy Tester, a young black man trying to make a living and support his widowed father. This re-imagining was a way to take Lovecraft’s prejudices and turn them into the driving force behind the new tale, showing how someone might see the end of the world in a tidal wave of horror as a pretty good alternative to the way the world is now.

A lot of people try to excuse, or at least set to one side, Lovecraft’s attitudes about race by saying he was “a product of his time”. Fair enough; Lovecraft was a brilliant writer who created a mythos that’s still inspiring people today, and he did come from a social structure that automatically looked down on anyone who wasn’t white. It doesn’t change the fact that some of his opinions were deeply problematic, and The Horror at Red Hook has probably some of the most blatant examples of how he viewed other races.

I read the story to prepare for this review (after reading LaValle’s version; I didn’t want to be spoiled), and there’s a lot to be uncomfortable with. Tammy Oler at Slate magazine wrote in a recent article that Lovecraft loathed New York, and it’s clear that the racial makeup of the city was a big reason why. Lots of cringe-worthy phrases here: “primitive half-ape savagery”, “blasphemies of an hundred dialects”, “swarthy, sin-pitted faces”. Red Hook was crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, and so prone to violence that the police pretty much gave up even trying to keep order, but it’s obvious that Lovecraft felt the real reason why the neighborhood fell so far from it’s “former happiness” was simply that there were too many foreigners.

The Ballad of Black Tom - coverSo why would a talented African-American writer like Victor LaValle decide to retell one of Lovecraft’s stories? LaValle apparently started reading Lovecraft at a young age (along with Clive Barker, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson. Never read any Shirley Jackson, but having her name included with the other three means I’m going to have to start.) He identified with the powerlessness that Lovecraft expressed in his writing; Lovecraft was never a critical success, he had a terrible upbringing, and he was terrified of a lot of things. Oddly enough, all of that struck a chord with a 10-year-old growing up in Queens. It was only when he got older that he started to realize just how much Lovecraft hated anyone who was even a little bit like LaValle.

In many ways, Lovecraft’s horror of other races translates word-for-word into the horror he tries to convey of Cthulhu and all his other nameless shambling monsters. As a response to that, LaValle retells the story from the viewpoint of a character who isn’t automatically afraid of other races, but who has to be very wary of the people who are.

Tommy Tester makes a fairly good living as a hustler in Harlem. Good enough, at least, to support himself and a father who’s broken down after a lifetime of doing honest work in an era when having the foreman occasionally decide to not pay you was just something that anyone who was black had to accept. Not wanting anything to do with that, Tommy runs the occasional con, and dresses as a jazz man with a guitar case (he’s mediocre with a guitar at best) in order to be invisible, the better to run errands that are slightly less than legal. And he’s happy, that’s important. Where Lovecraft saw a seething crowd of primitives and crime, Tommy walks the streets of Harlem and feels like part of something alive, a flowing, dancing mass of humanity.

The sections of the story concerning an eternal shambler from the deeps are all very nicely creepy; LaValle has mastered Lovecraft’s ability to scare you more with things you don’t see, but without getting bogged down by Lovecraft’s flowery writing style. There’s some very subtle imagery going on: a barely-seen but huge shape moving in an ocean that appears outside a mansion window, or a woman who never steps outside her door, but you can see something stretching out from her, extending back into the darkened house.

Lovecraft’s original story was a standard piece about Detective Malone trying to track down a man who’s throwing around a lot of money in a scheme to awaken something horrible. LaValle version is much more complicated. We get to see details about Robert Suydam’s rise to power, and learn more about what Suydam’s motives were. The final ceremony is different, and what happens to the unlucky detective is much, much worse (no quiet retirement and occasional shrieking fit for Malone. Or at least not just that.) But where the story really differs is how the entire first half is told by Tommy Tester’s point of view, and everything that led up to his identity change to Black Tom.

“Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.”

Lovecraft’s monsters were based at least partly on his horror of “the other”; LaValle’s monsters feel like they echo the soul-crushing reality of how men who have power treat those who don’t. Imagine having people look down on you, deny you access to good jobs and pay little or nothing for the ones you are allowed to have, and then blame the resulting poverty on “laziness”. Think about having “troublemaker” races kept in their own little sections – which the police only bother visit during short and violent raids – and then have the ones patrolling the edges of the neighborhood wonder why “those people” would choose to live there. Tommy gets to be on the receiving end of abuse after abuse, by everyone up to and including the police, and then gets treated as sub-human for not flying into a rage, because God help you if make the mistake of getting “lippy” with your “betters”.

It’s not just an unfortunate viewpoint, it’s literally crazy, as insane as the characters in Lovecraft’s stories who take one look at something from another dimension and then lose their minds. By the end you might not be able to agree with Black Tom for wanting to bring about the end of the world, but you can certainly understand where he’s coming from. If the choice is between death by a thousand cuts from people who can legally treat you any way they want, or having civilization – and everything that comes with it – wiped out of existence by an indifferent monster, well, bring on the monsters.