Published by Tor.com on February 16th 2016
It wasn’t until I had finished reading The Ballad of Black Tom that I found out it was based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story called The Horror at Red Hook and that several of the characters have the same names. This would have been more interesting to me had I actually read Lovecraft’s story first, but I did enjoy going back afterwards and looking up the details (thank God for Wikipedia!). What’s much more interesting about LaValle’s take on it is that he’s turned Lovecraft’s famous xenophobia on its head and written a story about one man’s experiences with racism in 1920s New York City. I mean, think about it: an African-American author, writing a story that deals with racism, based on a story by a famous racist. It sounds crazy, but LaValle pulls it off, although I have to say I was more interested in the mechanics of what he was trying to do, rather than the story itself, which to me lacked cohesion. The Lovecraft elements are subtle, and unless you’re familiar with the story it’s based upon, you may not notice them at all until the end.
What did scream “Lovecraft” to me, however, was the unsettling feeling that runs throughout the story. It was hard to put my finger on what made me so uncomfortable, and yet, the entire time I was reading I felt a strange sense of unease. LaValle’s blend of a dark magic lurking just below the surface of the story, with some very real and upsetting acts of racism, made this an odd and dreamlike reading experience.
The story is told in two sections, the first one from Tommy Tester’s point of view, a man who makes a living as a messenger delivering magical objects to various parts of the city. The second half is told from the perspective of a white cop named Malone, and picks up right after a shocking act of violence. A man named Robert Suydam features in both sections of the story, a sorcerer who can bend reality and create doors to another world. Both Tommy and Malone interact with him, but it’s Tommy that uses Suydam’s arcane knowledge to finally escape his life in Harlem. If my story description seems vague, it’s because it’s hard to grasp exactly what The Ballad of Black Tom is actually about. Many of the characters’ actions seem random and disconnected from each other. At the half way point when the story switches to Malone’s point of view, I lost the flow of the story, and it was hard to stay focused.
What I did love about this story, however, was the emotional impact I felt while reading it. Tommy’s relationship with his father Otis was wonderful. Otis has experienced racial injustice first hand, and he carries a straight razor on a chain around his neck to remind himself what a dangerous world it is for a black man. When he finds out that Tommy is venturing out of Harlem, he gives him the razor for protection.
LaValle’s subtle hints of danger, both real and supernatural, gave this story an odd feeling of menace. Shadows of unimaginable creatures appear behind people. Black holes open up out of nowhere to swallow people whole. These moments were creepy, but an unexpected act of violence was the most shocking part of the story, especially as it’s told with very little emotion.
So while the actual story didn’t blow me away, I can appreciate what LaValle was trying to accomplish. I think I would recommend reading the source material first, if you have the chance, but otherwise, this is a beautifully written story that combines the horrors of racism with the supernatural in a completely unexpected way.
This review originally appeared on Books, Bones & Buffy