Today I am writing to talk to you about The Ballad of Black Tom, which was written by Victor LaValle and published in 2016.
Being a Lovecraftian fan when I heard about this novella, I was all in there and it is safe to say that I was not disappointed. It is a reworking of Lovecraft’s “The horror of Red Hook.” But it builds on the original story and themes to explore racism, prejudice and isolation.
The novella won a slew of awards including but not limited to the Nebula and Hugo Awards.
The novel follows Charles “Tommy” Tester who lives with his sick father and runs schemes as a street hustler in Harlem in 1924. The first part of the novella is told from Charles perspective and the second is seen through the eyes of Detective Malone.
The story opens with Charles delivering a book to Ma Att. We then jump forward in time by a month and Charles is being questioned by two police officers, Detective Malone and Mr. Howard (a PI). They want to know about Robert Suydam, a wealthy white man who is offering Charles an obscene amount of money to perform with his guitar at an upcoming event. When they go to leave Detective Malone states that he is aware Charles took a page from the book he delivered to Ma Att in order to stop her using magic.
Charles arrives to perform at Robert Suydam’s mansion but it is empty and Robert confirms this is a dress rehearsal for the main event. Robert Suydam is racist as hell and starts talking about a Sleeping King who he will raise and use to destroy the world. He proves he’s not bullshitting by moving the mansion around in space and time (like a reverse Tardis).
Charles returns home and finds that his father has been killed by Mr Howard who was looking for the page from Ma Att’s book. The deeply affects Charles who decides to help Robert Suydam wake the Sleeping King.
We then shift to Detective Malone’s perspective; he is helping Mr Howard take the book page Att. He and Mr Howard are trying to find evidence that Robert Suydam is mentally unstable at the request of the Suydam family so they can pinch all the money. Robert Suydam defeats the case against him and Malone returns to his day job of fighting illegal immigration in Red Hook.
Malone later learns that Robert Suydam is using a black chap called Black Tom to take over buildings in the Red Hook area. There are also thoughts that Black Tom has kidnapped a white woman and thus the police charge into Red Hook all guns blazing. Malone heads into Robert Suydam’s building and finds a door that others cannot see, he enters and finds a basement where Robert Suydam and Black Tom are opening a portal to the Sleeping King. Black Tom then kills Robert Suydam and forces Malone to look into the abyss of the Sleeping King, even going so far as to remove his eyelids to stop him from looking away.
Black Tom vanishes when policemen storm the basement.
Malone, now mutilated, retires and wears glasses to hide his deformity he is forever haunted by what he saw. Meanwhile in Harlem Black Tom has unleashed the apocalypse.
This was a fantastic story; it doesn’t surprise me to see that it won as many awards as it did.
The plot is well structured, paced and suspenseful. It harkens back to the original Lovecraft story but doesn’t simply repeat the original. It puts its own unique spin on everything from perspective through to the events themselves; which highlights one of my favourite things about Lovecraftian horror and that is the variety, there are so many people writing in the mythos that you get so many unique voices, perspectives and interpretations. Lovecraft may have got the ball rolling but so many people have run with it that it’s grown into something amazing.
The characters are well developed which isn’t easy in novella’s, the story’s direct focus and small cast allow us to get in the heads of our two POV characters in such a way that we emphasise with them well.
With regard to the horror elements the story delivers on different levels, you have the traditional Lovecraftian elder god in the Sleeping King. An all-powerful, unknowable force that can rip through mankind with nary a thought. But you also have the social horror, in that LaValle doesn’t shy away from how Charles is treated, nor the poverty he endures. Lastly, the story works in the horror around how fragile our lives really are. Charles’s entire world crumbles when he loses his father, leaving him alone and isolated in an already hate-filled world.
Overall, this was an amazing book and well deserves the hype it’s received.