13 April 2017

Review - The Ballad of Black Tom

Image from http://us.macmillan.com/
The Ballad of Black Tom
Victor Lavalle
Tor, February 2016
PB, 151pp
Source: Bought

HP Lovecraft is an author who fascinates and divides, who has had an enduring impact on popular culture yet also repels.

I first read Lovecraft in the mid 80s. I think that his books may have been on a reading list my English teacher handed round when I was about 14, although I'm not sure. I do remember that the three volume paperback version of his complete works I have had to be specially ordered, so I didn't just come across them in a bookshop. It seems curiously appropriate that it's (now) a yellowing, cheap edition which probably wouldn't bear rereading: the pages would most likely crumble away if exposed to sunlight... I far prefer this to any of the handsome, acid free versions now available with erudite introductions and extensive footnotes.

When I first read these stories I had a thrill of recognition. I realised that I'd seen some of them before, in horror/ ghost anthologies. And the atmosphere of others was familiar from TV: the crazed cultists in the woods summoning up a nameless of horror from outside time were the staples of series like Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel. So it was clear that they were part of the DNA of popular horror, acknowledged or not.

There are though problems with the stories and with their writer which I didn't see at the time. I couldn't read them now without seeing the racism which lies beneath the surface of many: Lovecraft's figure, until recently used for the World Fantasy Award, has now been retired

But the stories remain, and they influence, and they prompt reactions. Some of those reactions come in the form of reworkings, new readings and challenges, which seem especially thick on the ground right now. I reviewed one of these a couple of days ago and The Ballad of Black Tom is another. It's a short book, at 150 pages (but that's something it has in common with many of the originals).

Set in the 1920s, Ballad follows Charles Thomas Tester, a young Black man living in New York who hustles for a living to support himself and his elderly father. Times are hard but Thomas gets by: outside the story he's clearly found a means to occult knowledge - we first see him taking a trip to deliver a book to a mysterious woman who is clearly a devotee of those arts. Where he got it, and how, we never learn - but he knows how to handle such things.

But supernatural horror isn't the only kind here. Tester's life is plagued by casual and not-so-casual racism: to be seen heading the wrong way on the subway train is enough to prompt questions from the whites, and a cop searching his pockets feels empowered to pinch any money he finds as "evidence". Later in the story we see just how cheap Black lives are, in an echo of recent murders (and Lavalle uses the term: murder, as that's what it is).

These experiences build and build through the book alongside Tester's experience of the weird, largely through encounters with Robert Suydam, an elderly white man whose family want him declared insane (they're worried he'll spend their inheritance). Cavorting with the likes of Tester must be a sign of such insanity, surely?

But when we learn what Suydam really wants, we might begin to agree that no, his grip on reality actually is rather precarious. Tester agrees, and might have turned his back on Sutdam, if it wasn't for one terrible event...

This book impresses on so many levels. It delivers all that (neo) Lovecraft should: the cultist, the meddling, the awful reality behind the appearance of the world, pulpy goings on in the backstreets (rather than the backwoods, here) and hints at forbidden, blasphemous knowledge. Yet it manages to be very modern too, despite its setting: the racism here is exposed as a thing done to the characters by their setting rather than being a key to the author's own mind. That frees the story to take a leap of imagination and explore what the oppressed might make of such a hidden reality, how they might choose to turn it against their tormentors. (And there's a cameo of Lovecraft himself that handily feeds back as almost a sort of origin narrative for his whole mythos - which is appropriate given that this whole story riffs off one of Lovecraft's own).

That's a lot to get into 150 pages but Lavelle manages it adroitly, in a story that flies along and demands to be read in a single sitting - and which has greater depth and resonance than any of the originals.

(For a more detailed analysis of both this book and Cassandra Khaw's Hammers on Bone, another take on neo-Lovecraftiana, see this fascinating essay on The Middle Shelf. (As an essay, it needs to reveal a bit more of the plot(s) than a review so you should read the books first).


  1. I had to go back to your review now that I've read the novella and I'm impressed by how you've managed to share it all without spoilers, something I couldn't do for my essay (shameless plug to anyone dropping by: it's here http://www.themiddleshelf.org/while-we-were-reading/two-writers-of-colour-and-the-lovecraft-legacy ) and when I wrote the actual review it was a nightmare to avoid them and trying to convey at the same time how great the story is. Your line "explore what the oppressed might make of such a hidden reality, how they might choose to turn it against their tormentors" brilliantly says it all.
    Thanks again for your part in making me read it!

  2. Thanks for your kind words (and for sharing the review).

    I'm always in two minds about spoilers. If you really want to discuss the content of a book (as in your essay) it's hard not to do them. You can skate on thin ice to a degree but that can get a little silly, and it does depend on the book itself. It gets worse when you're discussing book 2 or 3 in a series...