Old Demons, New Edge: Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom

blacktomHow can a 140-page novella be a perfect H.P Lovecraft pastiche while simultaneously asserting itself as a spell-binding work of pioneering fantasy horror? The answer isn’t immediately clear, but by gingerly dancing between social commentary, high fantasy, and gripping prose, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, makes it look easy. He’s inventing a brand-new genre while pausing every once and a while to give H.P. Lovecraft a good posthumous slap across the mouth.

LaVelle’s book has to be viewed in conjunction with Lovecraft because it is—at least loosely—a re-telling of Lovecraft’s infamous The Horror at Red Hook. In that 1925 book, Lovecraft chronicles the investigations of a man named Malone who uncovers the machinations of one Robert Suydam of Red Hook, Brooklyn to unleash the Elder Gods upon the Earth. Through this story, Lovecraft basically asserts that witchcraft and dark magic had rolled into the borough thanks to the influx of Asian and West Indian immigrants. Moreover, all these minorities were being organized by the white Suydam for various deranged purposes. Yikes. Though it is ripe with memorable imagery and moving Lovecraftian prose, The Horror of Red Hook has the sullied notoriety of being the most obvious display of the its author’s racism and xenophobia. A 2015 Tor.com article about it was even titled “Lovecraft’s Most Bigoted Story, No Really.”

Enter Victor LaValle. His version of the story is about a black man named Charles Thomas Tester, who insinuates himself into a different version of the same events. We join Tommy as a young con-man, hardly 21, as he is traveling from Harlem to Queens to deliver an arcane ancient yellow book to an urban sorceress. We learn quickly that Tom knows just how to manipulate people to get what he wants, and as such, he’s torn one magic page out of this book, rendering its power useless to his client. Tommy is confident in his ability to take what he needs to survive; from inside his head, LaValle writes, “Give people what they expect and you can take from them all you need.”

But Tommy quickly finds himself out of his depth—literally, figuratively, and then literally again—when this story’s version of Robert Suydam invites him to play guitar at a private party at his home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Suydam is clearly in touch with other dimensions, and is himself other-worldly (his legs change lengths at will! Gross!). Tommy discovers Suydam is really stoked about bringing about a kind of invitation-only Armageddon, and has a plan to awaken a mountainous creature called the “Sleeping King.” The Sleeping King lives deep, deep in an other-dimensional ocean, and his coming will make the siege of Gozer the Gozerian (Ghostbusters, give it a rental look like a joke factory. Will Tommy get down with Suydam and his merry band of end-of-the-world disciples? I’d ruin this I-dare-you-not-to-read-it-in-one-sitting book if I told you.

Because LaValle hits up Lovecraftian tropes from a totally new angle, he succeeds at criticizing their racist DNA, while honoring the horrifically good bits. The author’s dedication says it all: “To H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” Victor LaValle is not only reclaiming a version of H.P. Lovecraft for himself, but simultaneously reminding the reader of the high cost of persistent racism. In 2016, we’re inundated with news featuring senseless killings, often at the hands of law enforcement officials who are seemingly operating with no supervision. In LaValle’s 1920’s Harlem, police brutality seems at once much worse than it is now, and, bizarrely, way too familiar.

LaValle also manages to sneak in—at least from this reader’s perspective—a few nods to other classic horror literature. In one line, he seems to channel Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and Must Scream, as Tommy is confronted with shocking news: “He couldn’t open his mouth to ask what happened to Otis, because he’d forgotten he had a mouth.” References to the “Sleeping King” and his imminent madness are vaguely reminiscent of the “Yellow King,” from  R.W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow That book (now True Detective famous) begins its cycle of stories with a piece called “The Repairer of Reputations.” Is Victor LaValle, in a roundabout way, working to repair Lovecraft’s reputation, even as he tears it down?

Perhaps not. That particular author made his bigoted bed a long time ago, and he has to lie in it forever. Still, with endless creativity and deft, seemingly effortless prose, LaValle has stolen the deliciously demonic soul of old Howard’s vilest story and made it into something new. Describing Suydam’s spooky, inter-dimensional house, LaValle tells us, “[it was] as if the winds of the present never blew through here.” And yet, by attacking the ghost of Lovecraft with the flesh-and-blood Tommy Tessler, Victor LaValle makes the winds of the present blow strongly and clearly through a past we can never forget.

The Ballad of Black Tom is out today from Tor.com Publishing.

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