The Ballad of Black Tom: Lovecraft, Without the Bullshit
I discovered the Lovecraftian mythos when I was in my twenties, and it sucked me in right away. The cosmic horrors beyond the stars, the secrets no mortal was meant to know that could drive one mad just by setting eyes upon it; I started with the board game "Elder Sign" and it was all downhill from there. By the time I got around to reading H.P. Lovecraft's actual work, it was many years later, and I was disappointed (horrified?) to see the rampant, blatant anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and otherwise themes only Hitler could love. After that, I sought after people who felt the same way. I wanted to tell tales of Cthulhu and ancient cults spreading sigils that drove men mad to view it, but I also didn't want to perpetuate the legacy of a man whose worldview was, kindly put, "a flaming bag of garbage."
The Ballad of Black Tom is written by Victor LaValle, who is a man after my own heart. His dedication reads, "for H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings." I knew, at that moment, this book was my jam. In fact, it's more than just "inspired" by Lovecraft. It's a re-imagining of Lovecraft's short story written in 1924, "The Horror at Red Hook." Only this time? It's told from the perspective of a black man. Written by a black author, who would know best what the lives of the black community were, and can tell such a story most authentically. The Ballad of Black Tom is short -- it clocks in at 147 pages. But if you're preparing yourself for me to complain about how it would be better if it were longer, like I normally do? You'll be waiting awhile, my friend. This book leaves nothing unsaid, takes advantage of every opportunity, and is masterful at telling a page worth of story in only a few choice words. Nothing is wasted. The stakes are high, and LaValle keeps the pace until it all ends in a blaze of hellish glory.
Black Tom isn't a hero. He is a man who was a victim of a corrupt police force, and instead of cowing, he chose vengeance. And he will be remembered. Oh god, will he be remembered.
The Cast of Characters
There are two point-of-view characters in this story, and each of them gets one half of the book from their perspective. The first is Charles Thomas Tester, known as Tommy Tester within his circles. This man cuts a fascinating figure, both because he seems innocuous at first glance, and because this is the illusion he maintains for the specific purpose of being overlooked by people who could mean him harm. Which, in New York in 1924, is just about everyone to a black man out of his home neighborhood. He lost his mother a few years ago, and his father, at the ripe old age of forty-one, is ailing and aging from a lifetime of working as a bricklayer at subpar rates, with none of the benefits afforded to the white men doing the same job.
Tommy Tester (because his name is never stated in the story without both names) has a rather peculiar job. On the street, he looks like one of a thousand buskers in Harlem. But every once in a while, someone will come to him with a particular phrase, and they'll hire him for work. Usually, this involves finding arcane or otherwise "mysterious" items for interested parties. At the beginning of our story, he's delivering a little yellow book with the title "Zig Zag Zig" to an old woman who is more than what she seems. But Tester is smart. He knows what the powerful can do with these artifacts. So he delivers this book -- which burns when it touches the sunlight -- to her without the last page, rendering it useless.
Throughout the book, a few people see Tester for what he really is. He puts on a worn suit, a hat, and carries a guitar in its case (even though he only plays a few songs) and to someone less discerning, that is the key to being unnoticed. But there's talk of those who really see in this book. Whether you deem this as aura reading or ESP, maybe even just plain old empathy, they see something significant in Tester, that marks him as someone they want to deal with. I don't want to say too much more at this point on this character -- his development through the course of the book is vital to its plot, and thus, full of spoilers. But I'll come back to it later.
The second half of the story is told from the perspective of Detective Thomas Malone of the NYPD. He is a character Tester meets in the first half, escorting a private investigator, Mr. Howard, in the case against Robert Suydam, who we'll talk about in a moment. Malone is actually the original protagonist of "The Horror at Red Hook," so I appreciate that LaValle gives him some screen time here. Malone is a gentle heart, with a mind in search of the arcane, so he can at least begin to comprehend the implications of the goings on during the course of the plot. He isn't meant to be a participant in the story that follows. Malone, rather, is meant to be an unwilling spectator that watches the final chapters of the book unfold, and to be scarred by it forever. In any case, I hope he wasn't too attached to blinking.
The Plot of Cosmic Horror
The Ballad of Black Tom is divided into two points of view, yes. But also into two larger sections. Tester's portion is really Black Tom's origin story, while Malone's section is all about Black Tom's deeds that will make him go down in New York infamy. In the first section, Tester meets a man on the street named Robert Suydam (also an original character from "The Horror at Red Hook.") Suydam says he sees something particular in Tester, and wishes for him to play at a party he's holding. When Tester meets with Suydam at his house, it becomes obvious that Suydam has far greater ambitions. He wishes to rouse someone he refers to as "The Sleeping King," who slumbers in an ancient city far beneath the ocean.
Side bar: if you're not familiar with Lovecraftian mythos, a lot of it revolves around the idea that there are immortal beings called Great Old Ones, asleep or dormant, whose wakening would bring about the destruction of the world. There are often cults that seek to bring them to prominence, with the idea that they would be spared and given rewards for their loyalty, and would be free to remake the world in the image of their particular flavor of B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Such Great Old ones include beings such as Cthulhu (The Sleeping King under the waves), Nylarlahotep (The Black Pharaoh), Hastur (The King in Yellow and the OG "He Who Must Not Be Named") and Ithaqua (the shifty winter sonovabitch that is so hard to beat in Arkham Horror.) Ahem.
Anyway. This meeting is the beginning of the main plot. But if you know anything about "The Horror at Red Hook," the original short story has little to do with Cthulhu or cosmic horror. In fact, it was Lovecraft's attempt to be published for conventional horror, and is just based around your average Satan-worshipping cult, rather than the kind that can drive you mad just for funsies. The rekindling of the Cosmic aspect of the "mythos" (what Lovecraft's whole deal is generally called) and the re-imagining it from the perspective of a black man, is something Lovecraft would have never, ever done. It shifts the balance of power to the people that Lovecraft despised most. And yes, there's plenty of racism in this book, but it's not told in such a way that it's condoned or encouraged. It's presented in such a way that you cringe every time Tester is called an ape, or is called the N-word.
Midway through the book, there's a turning point, though, and this is my one spoiler, both because it's the crux of the entire book, and because it's a significant trigger for any of our black readers. The police come to Tester's house while he's out with Suydam. They're looking for Tommy, but find his father instead. The private detective sees Otis come to the door, guitar in hand. He "assumes it's a rifle" and opens fire, empties his revolver, reloads it, and empties it again on the poor man.
This is a reality that the black community still faces. Even in the year 2023, it is possible for a black man to come to the door of their own home with a guitar, for a police officer to assume it's a weapon, and kill him. It's not even that uncommon. LaValle is settting a time capsule for us. A moment of universal truth for our black siblings. It's a poignant, macabre message that we have much work left to do.
The Themes of the Ballad
It's fascinating and clever, what LaValle manages to do with what begins as a simple re-skinning of a mindless, fun horror tale designed to scare your socks off. He takes it in his hands, and molds it into something pertinent to the present-day. The scene of an ailing father, slaughtered too soon at the hands of police who honestly didn't care, so long as it sent a message to the man who wasn't home. As long as they were able to get their victim out of the way so they didn't have to deal with that pesky red tape to find what they were looking for. After all, crime scenes are searched by default, right?
The scene of a son, devastated, alone and with nothing to lose after his father's death, turning to rage and vengeance against the system that allowed the murder to happen. And who wouldn't? Who among us, when faced with that kind of systemic, needless slaughter, wouldn't at least be tempted to bring the world down around them for what they'd done? And so Black Tom is born.
He is not presented as a protagonist for Malone's section of the story, but neither is Malone. Black Tom is the Sadako (if you read my last review) of New York in the 1920s. A man who has been wronged over and over again, who was willing to live within the system that detested him, until it showed him that nothing was safe. I cannot, will not condone the events of the second half of the book, or Black Tom's deeds as he rains down hell itself ("rains down Cthulhu" doesn't have the same ring, I'm sorry.) But I get it. I get that the black community, when the dust settles, considers him a kind of problematic folk hero. Not because he did great things, but because he stood up to the system itself, and he walked away where so many others had died.
Also: Black Tom caused climate change. So thanks for that.
If you're a white reader tackling this book, there are really two ways to do so and enjoy it. You can tackle it blithely, with a degree of guileless enthusiasm for Lovecraftian horror and put it down and go "well, that was fun." Or you can open the pages with a degree of empathy, a sense of "what can I learn, and what am I not seeing because I've never had to deal with these issues." I highly recommend the second. My white siblings, we are not responsible for the racist actions of our ancestors in the twenties. Our responsibility is the world in front of us, as it stands, and there's still so much work to do so that modern-day Tommy Testers can care for their ailing fathers by becoming accountants in a firm with good benefits, instead of peddling arcane wares and dealing in dark matters beyond our reckoning. Where they can leave for their jobs and not have to worry that their family won't be alive when they get home. Where the system is designed to protect everyone in it, and not just the special people who sunburn easily. Don't believe me? Angered by my words? Please, before you rage quit, think about why that might be. I am listening to the story, but I'm also listening to the stories of my black siblings, and I'm believing them, because they know about their lives better than I do. Why on earthy wouldn't I? And why wouldn't I fight for it to be better?
Anyway. The book itself is fantastic, but read it with an open eye, and a compassionate heart. This is a cautionary tale. For there are far greater evils in the world than Cthulhu.
Purchase This Book
Barnes & Noble gave me a weird rejection notice.
Persie looks so sleepy in this picture. It says to me, "what the hell are you doing? I was sleeping." Taken by my wife. Pay special note to the tentacles at the feet of Black Tom. CLASSIC.