Review: THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle (Tor.com)

LaValleV-BalladOfBlackTomUSA nice twist on Lovecraftian horror

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

I’m rather late to the party on this one, but I was certainly intrigued after I first read the synopsis. The Ballad of Black Tom is a really interesting, well-written twist on Lovecraftian horror. I really enjoyed this, and I think it will appeal to a wide swathe of SFFH fandom. Thankfully, you also don’t need to have read any Lovecraft to enjoy it.

I must admit that I haven’t read any Lovecraft. However, it’s impossible to be in any way observant of today’s SFFH community and not be aware of that author’s racist portrayal of and thoughts on non-whites. It was, therefore, rather nice to see LaValle subvert the Cthulhu mythology for a modern audience. Better informed reviewers have written at length on this subject, so I shall keep the rest of this review to the novella on its own.

LaValle has a gift for writing location and place — he’s certainly up there with the best at this, too. It’s not difficult to picture the scenes of the story in your head: whether on the raised subway, or Robert Suydam’s opulent parlour, or just on the streets. He brings 1920s New York to life on the page, all from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black musician (though, at first, not a very good player); and Malone, a white detective. Through these two characters’ eyes, we see something of race “relations” of the ’20s, learn of the Sleeping King and what his awakening promises for the oppressed and downtrodden.

The author never over-describes, kept the story moving at a good pace. His prose is very well-composed, and his description tight. We get to know the characters pretty well, and the two primary perspectives offer good alternative takes on events. The “cosmic horror” stuff is great, too, and I’d certainly like to read more work like this by LaValle (or anyone else, to be honest) — I’ve always liked the idea of an evil entity/power/force existing on the other side of the veil/just below the surface of reality. While I appreciated the decision to make this a shorter book, I think it could have been longer without weakening the impact. I certainly would have been happy to read another 100 pages, maybe more.

I’m sure those familiar with Lovecraft’s work will get more out of The Ballad of Black Tom, but even though I’ve read none of the ‘source’/inspirational material, I can say that it’s a very engaging and satisfying book. I will definitely be checking out more of LaValle’s work. I enjoyed this a lot. Highly recommended.

*

Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is published by Tor.com, and is out now.

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