Friday, August 2, 2019

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The first three lines of The Ballad of Black Tom were largely lost on me when I first read it last year. I had read things over the years that were influenced by Lovecraft. Last year I heard of a mini-boom in “revisionist” Lovecraft stories in a podcast; books in which people of color and women were made the protagonists. This and The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe were mentioned in this context. After those I went on to Caitlin Kiernan, who has subsequently become a favorite writer (though I’m not sure I would characterize her work as revisionist). Before I read Black Tom, I read The Horror at Red Hook; the LaValle is a retelling of that novella from the perspective of a black man. This is important, because The Horror at Red Hook is the most overtly xenophobic and racist of Lovecraft’s stories (or at least it has that reputation; it’s definitely that among the ones I’ve read). At the time I liked Black Tom much better than the original; now that I’ve read more Lovecraft and know a little more about him, the book is even better.

The first three lines are brilliant. Lovecraft moved to New York and, so the story goes, was so scared by the masses of people, particularly immigrants, that he retreated to Providence. The first lines are “People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn.” Whether this is true in the abstract, I will leave to people who have at least been to New York; however it’s a beautifully subtle way for LaValle to announce his intentions; Lovecraft couldn’t properly see the place, and he’s going to take a crack at it. It’s not preachy, a trap into which the “fixing” of a historical work could easily fall. He just takes the premise, a wealthy white man tries to get a lot of immigrants and non-white people (to the horror of the narrator in the original) in Red Hook to help him raise the sleeping god Cthulhu to destroy the world. He just tells it from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, who falls in with the wealthy man. He also tones down the purple in the prose, adds more rounded characters, a better understanding of the actual social situation and more believable dialog while keeping the creeping dread and encroaching madness that Lovecraft was so good at.

The book is dedicated “To HP Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” You can see that conflict in the book (again without being heavy handed or didactic). Clearly, LaValle has read his Lovecraft and enjoyed it enough to want to play in that sandbox. But the line, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day” hits really hard, given what the character goes through in the novella. This is clearly better than the source Red Hook story. You could read that so as to better see what’s happening here, but it really stands as an excellent work on its own merit.

Highly Recommended.

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