H.P. Lovecraft gets a fantastic spin in this novella by Victor LaValle. Lovecraft is hard to admit you like, because his stories of cosmic horror and old ones are so good, and have become such a cornerstone of horror fiction, but he was just so racist and that permeated all of his writing.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes that racism away, and gives power to an African-American character, Tommy Tester. Set in the 1920s, the story is a riff on Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, and doles out its supernatural and cosmic terrors wonderfully, while scaring us with the all too real problems and threats that permeate the lives of Black Americans even now.
From police brutality, to the way they are addressed, and the indifference they are treated with, it’s all there, mixed beguilingly with Lovecraft terror as Tommy Tester, is recruited by a rich, old, eccentric white man, Robert Suydam, in a plot to resurrect the Old Ones.
But there are other powers at work, there’s an old woman who has hired Tommy to deliver something to her, and he follows the letter of the deal, if not the spirit, and dogging his footsteps is a lone cop, and a sadistic, violent and racist private detective.
Tommy wants to do right by his father, and by himself, but the world around him seems to be turned against him, vilifying him simply because of his skin colour.
LaValle tells an engaging, page turner that haunts you, while making you think. As the last sentences tumble across the last page, perhaps there is a final justice that plays out there. LaValle’s storytelling style is evocative, conjuring images before the reader’s eyes, and this one played out entirely in the theatre of my mind as I read it. It was one of those stories where I no longer even saw the words, I just so it all in my mind’s eye. And it was alternately terrifying and angering.
I was completely swept up in the narrative, and loved how LaValle used Lovecraft to tell a story that looks at racism, hatred, and rage and the effects it can have not only on society, but on a single soul.
I can definitely say that it is no surprise that LaValle won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella. It’s a great read, and if it’s too short for you, make it a double feature with Lovecraft Country.
Both solid, and amazing reads that will give you supernatural scares while letting readers discover the horrors that are for some, an every-day existence.
Loved this one!