The Ballad of Black Tom

April 4, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

balladThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

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Last year, I read The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was a feminist response to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. These responses seem to be a new trend, since The Ballad of Black Tom is written as a response to “The Horror at Red Hook”. Initially, I was going to wait to write my review of LaValle’s book until I read Lovecraft’s story, but after reading the first few chapters, I realized something: I just don’t like Lovecraft.

I recognize and appreciate his place in horror, but his prose style is so dense, his themes potentially so offensive, that I don’t have a lot of patience for it. I have a ton of stuff I want to read, so why put myself through reading something I don’t like? I feel like reading summaries of the stories is enough for me to grasp his intents, which leaves me more time to read something that’s written much better, like The Ballad of Black Tom.

“The Horror at Red Hook” is considered to be the most racist thing he ever wrote, so it’s interesting to see LaValle’s take on it. Here, we see the same story, told from the perspective of Tommy Tester, a blues musician and con man who lives in Harlem and is hired by Robert Suydam to play at a party. Tester discovers that Suydam has greater intentions than just a party — and that’s where Lovecraft’s influence comes into play — but instead of turning away from it in horror, he embraces it.

Part of what makes Tommy comfortable with the cosmic horrors at play is that they’re almost nothing compared to what he has to deal with as a black man living in white America. LaValle shows how powerless he is against the police, society, or even the average white man. When faced with the real threat of racism, what’s a little Great Old One? At the very least, it gives Tommy the power to walk through the streets without fear. So begins the conversion from Tommy Tester to Black Tom.

Readers who are already familiar with “The Horror at Red Hook” will likely get the most out of this novella, but the story succeeds by itself, too. Regardless, this new trend of retelling Lovecraft’s tales with a modern perspective helps bring new life to older stories, while also addressing the problems of his fiction. Additionally, it helps me discover new writers like LaValle and Kij Johnson, which might be the best thing of all about the trend.

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