Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black TomIf there is one name that pops up lately on the radar when it comes to weird fiction, Victor LaValle’s name is one seen repeatedly. LaValle’s been in the scene for a while, primarily writing hard-to-classify novels that cross the bridge between weird and horror, while maintaining a strong literary aesthetic throughout. Author of The Ecstatic, Big Machine, Slapboxing with Jesus, The Devil in Silver, and the forthcoming The Changeling, LaValle’s novella, The Ballad of Black Tom securely placed him in the line of sight of those who love weird fiction while directly referencing his influences head-on.

Perhaps directly referencing is saying it lightly.

Skewering is more like it.

While our focus here is exploring the writers before and beyond H.P. Lovecraft, his contemporaries and present-day writers, it would be ludicrous not to mention him here where it concerns LaValle’s tale. Especially when his tale takes one of Lovecraft’s most notorious stories and completely flips it over and inside out, effectively setting things right while scaring the hell out of readers. The story in question is ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Fortunately, we are not reviewing that story here. Unfortunately, I had to read it as frame of reference for LaValle’s story. You do not need to read Lovecraft’s story to understand The Ballad of Black Tom; there’s not a reason for anyone to read that particular Lovecraft story in my opinion, as it is vile, racist, and not that well-written. LaValle has taken Lovecraft’s most notorious tale and reframed it for us as an even more horrifying story, exceptionally well-written with the utmost attention to detail.

LaValle’s tale introduces us to Charles Thomas Tester, a guitar-case carrying procurer of strange and mysterious items of interest for the occult minded in New York. Tester plays a little guitar, and can sing, but he’s more interested in the occult side of the world, fetching arcane manuscripts and books to sell to the underground magicians people often talk about, but never really encounter unless they look real hard. Tester’s a hustler, a man of the streets, and his street-wise education taught him how to blend in, and in some cases, become invisible. As a black man in Brooklyn, he knows all too well how the rich white people see him, and especially how the police see him, and it’s not good.

Enter Robert Suydam. Yes, the same man from the Lovecraft story. Here we find the Suydam character with the same motivations as before, but much more fleshed-out. LaValle makes the character real, and stranger and effectively menacing. When Tester purposely removes some pages from a magical tome he procured for a sorceress, word gets around quick in New York. Tester wants to get in to this underground world of the occult. When he encounters Suydam, the old man offers Tester way too much money to perform at his Flatbush home for some guests. Tester can’t say no. He knows Suydam is up to something, and Tester is determined to get in on the action.

Tester’s father is killed by the police when they ridiculously mistake a guitar case for a gun. Here we become more acquainted with Detective Thomas Malone, the protagonist of the original Lovecraft story. All the racial tension Tester has felt his entire life comes to a head. LaValle then switches gears and gives us a deeper look into Malone’s perspective, allowing Malone to carry the story to the end. Each scene becomes creepier as Malone gets closer to the truth. Malone knows a little about magic and the occult, probably just enough to get himself in real danger if he looks too close. Well, look too closely he does, and he finds himself caught right in the middle of a bizarre ritual that could be the end of everything.

Without spoiling the story, it’s easy to say that not only does LaValle improve on the original plot, but he does it by putting Lovecraft’s secondary villain—the inhabitants of Red Hook—front and center, giving them a voice through Tommy Tester. It would be very easy to dismiss this book if it was just another rip-off of a crappy story, but that’s just not the case here. Perhaps that’s why the novella is both a Nebula and Stoker Award nominee. The horrors of the story are both real and imagined for the reader, as we confront racism head-first with some nasty dealings in the arcane arts designed to wake up the sleeping ‘Elder Gods’. It’s not that LaValle improves the story, or that he answers the inherent racism of the original tale, but that he does all of those things while still crafting a story that is effectively scary as hell at the same time. No easy task, and there’s only one writer who could have done it this way, and that’s Victor LaValle.

The Ballad of Black Tom is definitely a book to check out if only just to see what can be done with the ‘Mythos’ while making the story socially relevant. We highly recommend it, and it deserves all of the accolades and awards it is nominated for, as it is spectacular story-telling that shouldn’t be missed. Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos will return in a few months. Next month, please join me as we take a little side trip down the weird pathway to the curious genre of Supernatural Detectives, with a revisit of Algernon Blackwood and a closer look at his John Silence stories. Until then, keep exploring, and stay warm.



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