Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom coverI’m reading a bunch of horror and weird fiction and not so much queer fiction at the moment. (If only I could combine the two more often.) As I’m editing some at the moment and want to get in the right head space, I’ve been hunting down modern Lovecraft inspired stuff, particularly written from the point of view of marginalised groups. I may post more about that in general, at a later date. For now, here’s a review of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which was recently voted a Hugo finalist.

The novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. The original is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most racist and xenophobic stories, so LaValle has taken it and switched it, with Tommy Tester, a black hustler from Harlem as the main character. The story is split between Tommy Tester’s point of view and that of the original Red Hook character, the white Irish police detective, Malone.

I love the premise for this and I love the first half, where Tester hustles on the edge of the occult world, passing dubious items across New York’s different neighbourhoods, using his guitar case as transportation. Tester wants a different life from his parents, who broke themselves working hard manual jobs for white men. When Tester meets Robert Sudyam, a wealthy occultist, he’s invited into the heart of Red Hook’s occult scene.

The story plays with ideas of otherness and monsters. The original Lovecraft story is invested with a powerful sense of alienation and Lovecraft’s trademark fear of the unknown. LaValle challenges the whole concept of the unknown in his story—showing the neighbourhoods he frequents as homes and communities, rather than seething pits if horror, as Lovecraft saw them, and celebrating the diversity within.

When police brutality and corruption pushes him to the edge, Tester embraces his monstrous identity and uses his power for revenge. The story poses and doesn’t resolve the question of what is the right way to live under the sort of systemic abuse Tester and his parents experience and I think that lack of resolution works well for the tone of the story.

I think the retelling is successful, both as weird fiction and a way to explore these themes, but the second half for me was a bit weaker. It focuses on Malone, but is often omniscient. It felt a little distant and not quite as intense as I’d hoped in the horror sections. Saying that, it’s still a good story, but the first half is much stronger. It’s also satisfying to see writers being uncompromising about the broken aspects of early spec fic writing, whilst also paying them homage; it’s a tricky balance and I think LaValle gets it right.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

  1. I’ve finished reading it yesterday and I’m currently reading all the reviews about it to enjoy it some more by proxy! I liked your review a lot but, though I agree about how you found the second part “a little distant”, I was wondering if it isn’t precisely because it is the most Lovecraftian half, with a character who is a typical Lovecraftian character (white, racist, fascinated by the occult…) and LaValle tried to recapture Lovecraft style which can be a bit distant too sometimes.
    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I can see what you mean. I think the tricky thing is with Lovecraft’s style, he has that omniscient thing going on, and in one sense the point of view is distant, but the style is also very intense and detailed, which counterbalances it. With a more modern style, like LaValle’s, that distance is more noticeable because it’s a more stripped down and simple style. Although I did wonder if it’s partly because LaValle found Tester a much more sympathetic character to write, for obvious reasons. For me, it just undercut the horror aspects a bit, but I still liked the turn around of Tester embracing his monstrous side. I’m a bit preoccupied with human monsters and how that relates to marginalised groups.

      Like

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