The Ballad of Black Tom
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Release Date: February 16th, 2016
The thing about H.P. Lovecraft, father of the Cthulhu mythos and herald of the cosmic horror genre, is that he was an unabashed racist. Many critics try to link his views as part of his "fear of the unknown," but there's no denying that the author's anger didn't completely stem from fear as much as disgust. Take, for instance, these charming passages he spews on the horrors of 1920's New York in his short story "The Horror at Red Hook":
The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another... From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky.
"Red Hook" is probably Lovecraft's most racist work, and not even he's fond of it. Critics, fans, and apologists won't even defend this one. It has some of the most offensive and derogatory descriptions of non-white people possible, without resorting to actual racial slurs. I say "people" because they're certainly not characters, or barely even human beings. In "Red Hook," they're a prop, and in Lovecraft's world view, they're a mongoloid plague that corrodes civilization. Even the hero of the story, Thomas Malone, has encouraging thoughts about this "hopeless tangle" that teem throughout his city:
[I]f superior minds were ever placed in fullest contact with the secrets preserved by ancient and lowly cults, the resultant abnormalities would soon not only wreck the world, but threaten the very integrity of the universe.
Which is, of course, what happens in "The Horror at Red Hook": A disreputable and reprehensible white man leads the growing masses of dark foreigners into orgiastic demon worship that, let's face it, they couldn't do without proper guidance from a white dude. Obviously.
What struck me the most about "The Horror at Red Hook" was Lovecraft's admission on how he sees people of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian decent. He felt that these people were genetically disposed to vile behavior, stemming from barbaric tradition. Can you imagine someone walking past a dance hall in the 1920's, angrily muttering about all these damn black people and how they can't help how they are because their ancestors worshipped devils? That's what's happening here:
He was conscious, as one who united imagination with scientific knowledge, that modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances; and he had often viewed with an anthropologist’s shudder the chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed and pockmarked young men which wound their way along in the dark small hours of morning. One saw groups of these youths incessantly; sometimes in leering vigils on street corners, sometimes in doorways playing eerily on cheap instruments of music, sometimes in stupefied dozes or indecent dialogues around cafeteria tables near Borough Hall, and sometimes in whispering converse around dingy taxicabs drawn up at the high stoops of crumbling and closely shuttered old houses... he seemed to see in them some monstrous thread of secret continuity; some fiendish, cryptical, and ancient pattern utterly beyond and below the sordid mass of facts and habits and haunts listed with such conscientious technical care by the police. They must be, he felt inwardly, the heirs of some shocking and primordial tradition; the sharers of debased and broken scraps from cults and ceremonies older than mankind. Their coherence and definiteness suggested it, and it shewed in the singular suspicion of order which lurked beneath their squalid disorder.
Did you get all of that? It's like the Roaring Twenties version of an armchair anthropologist neckbeard.
Enter Victor LaValle, writer and Lovecraft fan who has revisited the author's most reviled work from a different perspective. LaValle's novella The Ballad of Black Tom begins the narrative from the point of view of its titular character, Charles "Tommy" Thomas Tester. Tester is a young black man in Harlem, 1924, who runs cons on marks involved in supernatural circles. He lives with his father, his only living relative and someone he greatly admires. Lovecraft and LeValle's characters each hold resentment towards New York, but where Lovecraft hated its buildings and foreigners, LeValle's Tommy Tester faces oppression at every turn. Tester thinks the rest of the world is out to get him and his, and it is: He's harassed constantly by cops, train conductors, and even a roving band of children, all because he's gone a little too far from his "designated" areas. He's dogged at every step, a second-class citizen in a white man's world.
But this isn't his first rodeo. He's a man of illusion, knowing how to appear innocuous or blend it to keep the white folks from getting suspicious. One of Tester's acts of illusion is to carry around a guitar case and pretend that he's one of the many jazz musicians that take up residence in Harlem. Note that the case is empty; he eventually gets enough money to buy his own guitar and play some songs (terribly). While strumming a blues tune one afternoon, he's approached by none other than Robert Suydam, the villain of the original "Red Hook" story. Suydam invites him to play at a gathering he's holding at his mansion, and he's willing to pay a lot of moolah to have him there. The private investigator and police officer following Suydam around, however, have different plans in mind.
About midway through, the narration turns to Thomas Malone, the protagonist of Lovecraft's original short story, and his investigation into Suydam and his strange behavior. It's a bit of a shame that the story switches to him at this point, as it leaves Tester off on a cliffhanger, and his part is much more interesting than Malone's. Tommy felt real, and we were invested in his story and the eldritch mysteries unraveling around him. By the time Malone hears or sees him again, he's going by the name Black Tom, and he'd become a force to be reckoned with.
One of the major changes between "The Terror of Red Hook" and LaValle's story is the actual Lovecraftian mythos being used. The original story drew from real-world occultism, focusing on romanticized pagan magic and witchcraft. In The Ballad of Black Tom, we go full-on Great Old Ones: the following Sudyam establishes among the immigrant and black populations is a cult of madness, promising the downtrodden that the'll live like kings in Cthulhu's good graces as he devours the rest of the world. What seems horrifying to us readers is actually appealing to characters like Black Tom: Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
LaValle does an excellent job of depicting the unnatural terror and revulsion that Lovecraftian horror tries to convey, and does a better job of it than H.P. did himself. One of my favorite moments of the story is Tester's nauseated reaction to seeing Sudyam subtly change part of his shape. It hits him in such a profound way that what he is seeing isn't some magic trick, but is so unnatural and wrong that his own body can't help but to react with repulsion. The novella is filled with moments like this, culminating in two small epilogues explaining the ramifications of the character's actions, making the main characters ask the question "Was I wrong?" and "Where do we go from here?"
The Ballad of Black Tom is a solid retort to the awful points-of-view of Lovecraft's original work, while maintaining a love and appreciation for the genre he created. It is both critique and homage, and worth the time for any Lovecraft fan. I read this completely unaware of its relationship to the original story (which I read before writing this), as I feel it would have increased my appreciation for the novella. That being said, it stands on its own, and my only real complaint is that I wanted more. More Cthulhu mythos in the 1920's, more of Black Tom, more of this world that he has created. I wasn't blown away by the story overall, but I found the writing and characters enjoyable, and I wanted to really get a feel for these characters and this world.
The Ballad of Black Tom is an interesting study in genre and character. I enjoyed it enough to want to read more from LaValle, and I'll probably re-read The Ballad of Black Tom again. If you're a fan of cosmic horror and want to try something a little different than what you'd normally see in standard horror stories or in the Call of Cthulhu/Eldritch Horror game worlds, then I recommend picking this short story up.
A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive... What was indifference compared to malice?
“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.