I’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.