Book Reviews

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

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The Ballad of Black Tom

By: Victor LaValle

Published: February 16, 2016

The Rundown: “People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.  Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook.  He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops.  But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.  A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn.  Will Black Tom live to see it break?”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: A man walks through a gloomy alley carrying a guitar case, his face obscured by darkness.  Stretching towards him, one sees the shadows cast by some sort of tentacle monster.  The man doesn’t seem fazed, and continues walking towards it.  It’s an intriguing cover suggestive of Lovecraftian elements, and will attract the interest of any fan of horror.

What a Wonderful World: The Ballad of Black Tom is a reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Horror at Red Hook, published in 1927.  Not one of his best stories, Red Hook is noteworthy in that it exemplifies Lovecraft’s xenophobic attitudes.  Red Hook is inhabited by “herds of evil-looking foreigners,” who are interested in the occult and aligned with the antagonist, Robert Suydam.  Black Tom turns Lovecraft’s racist attitude on its head, reimagining Red Hook from the perspective of a black man in Suydam’s employ.  Tom, the protagonist, lives in Harlem and enjoys spending time in a black Caribbean club.  He is safer, and more comfortable, in a multi-ethnic environment.  Only when white people arrive do things begin to go sour for him.

The Good Guy: Charles Thomas Tester, known to all as Tom, is a hustler residing with his aging father.  Tom plays the role of the “down-and-out black musician” to dupe white people into underestimating him; he then swindles them.  He has found a way to take the prejudice and injustice endemic to the city and use it in his favor.  However, problems arise when he swindles a sorceress named Ma Att.  Now, he has to deal with the attention of two detectives and a wealthy recluse named Robert Suydam.

The Bad Guy: Robert Suydam has spent many years researching the occult, and has become involved with unsavory characters in pursuit of his studies.  This doesn’t sit well with his family, who are trying to wrest control of his fortune.  Little do they know that Suydam has sinister plans, plans which will place him in charge of a new world order…

Supreme Alphabet: I liked the depictions of the way racism is perpetuated through police brutality.  I can’t go into detail without getting into major spoilers, but an important character is flat-out murdered by the police.  The detective who carried out the murder, being white, is treated with friendliness by the cops and faces no legal repercussions for his actions.  It’s a devastating scene.

Brown Note: Half the book is told from the perspective of Tom Tester, while the other half is told from the perspective of Detective Thomas Malone.  Malone is very much a typical Lovecraftian protagonist: rational, but nevertheless entranced by the occult.  He’s not a boring character per se, but his perspective is definitely less interesting than Tom’s.

Does it Represent…

Women: There is exactly one female character, and she is evil and barely in the novella.

People of Color: Hell yes, it does!  The main character, his family, and his friends are all African-Americans who live in Harlem.  The book directly confronts the implications of the racism present in Lovecraft’s original novella, and how it warps the lives of ordinary people of color.  The only times black characters are safe are when they are around other black characters, as all the white characters are either virulently racist or passively complicit in racism.

LGBT People: No.

The Disabled: No.

Memorable Quote: “’I bear a hell within me,’ Black Tom growled.  ‘And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.’”

Recommended for: Fans of Lovecraft who wish his work was less racist.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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