"The Ballad of Black Tom" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by Tor Books
Written by Victor Lavalle
2016, 160 pages, Fiction
Released on February 16th, 2016
Victor Lavalle, like the rest of the horror world, has a complicated relationship with H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft's blatant, hateful phobias are the worst kept secret in horror. It may be true that he can be considered a master gothic storyteller and creator of the Cthulhu mythos, but in many of his stories he makes his lowered opinions of basically anyone who is not white, male and privileged abundantly clear. In recent years, his work and offshoots of it have grown exponentially in popular culture, and his readers have struggled to come to terms with these contradictions. What can you do when someone whose work you admire is filled with racist bullshit?
If you're as good of a horror writer as Victor Lavalle, the answer is simple. You wrest the tales from Lovecraft's racist legacy the best way you know how – with a horror story. In this way, The Ballad of Black Tom finally stakes a claim for those who love the man's writing but hate his xenophobia. Lavalle creates a story around a lesser-known tale (The Horror at Red Hook) with exceptional skill, haunting writing, and a brilliant social commentary. It doesn't just turn the tables on Lovecraft, it flips the table over and, with delicious irony, turns the 'monster' against itself.
Charles Thomas Tester, or Tommy to his friends, lives in the Bronx, cares for his ailing father Otis, and struggles to make ends meet. With a decent suit and the knowledge of misdirection, he hustles his way through the 1920's era boroughs with the only thing that can alleviate the constant scrutiny of being a black man out in public in this day and age – a guitar case. On one such outing, he delivers a mysterious yellow book to a strange old spinster and runs headlong into his newest mark, a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. He offers a hefty sum for Tommy to play at a function of his, which he is oddly insistent that he attends. Tommy, already wary of the offer, is shaken down as soon as he rounds the corner by Officer Malone and Private Detective Howard, hired to tail Suydam and monitor his odd activities. Despite the warnings of his father and friends, Tommy decides that the money is too good to pass up and takes the risk by travelling to Suydam's stately home one night. Little does he know that a series of events has been set into motion that will not only change his life, but the cosmic fate of the entire human race.
There are so many things about Ballad that make it such a perfect response to Lovecraft's legacy and its modern supporters. For one thing, it humanizes the black characters, which were so often described as less-than in the traditional tales. Tommy's ultimate decision to help Suydam is not based in blind evil, but shown as a complex psychological journey for a black man pushed to the brink in an inherently racist society. He talks shop with his friends, who sympathize and offer what council they can. He confesses his fears to his father, who does his best to prepare his son for life in a world that will hate and fear him: "'You're a grown man and I can't stop you from making your way,' Otis said. 'I wouldn't even want to. But you don't walk into that white man's house unarmed or unaware. Anything goes bad, you get out, and you get back to me...I don't care if you've got to spill blood to do it, but you get out of that house at the end of the job and you get back to me.'"
Lavalle also adds complexity to the white male characters of the story. Private Detective Howard demonstrates in his speech that he is a purely racist dilettante, spouting wacked-out eugenic theories endemic to the time period. While Malone does not back him up in these tirades, he doesn't disagree with him either, which is its own form of insidious racism. Most importantly, the social interaction between Tommy and the other characters weaves the black experience into the telling of the story rather than shoehorning it in. Tommy's anxiety & fear in these interactions is practically palpable: "Tommy waited before reaching down for his guitar case. No sudden moves in front of even a sullen cop. Just because Malone wasn't as rough as the private detective didn't mean he was gentle."
What really drives this kind of writing home is that these experiences are not archaic and forgotten to history. The same (or very similar) situations could be torn from the headlines in 2016 and fit right in. This is a sad but necessary fact of life which Lavalle illustrates to us in his story. The terror doesn't just lie with the 'Sleeping King' that Suydam seeks, but the capability of hatred and indifference that lies within the human heart. When his world comes crashing down, the reader understands the journey and can empathize with Tommy and his decisions. When he becomes 'Black Tom', a kind of supernatural avenging angel complete with a blood-stained guitar, it is not a decision made lightly or without careful consideration. Suydam may think he runs the game, but we come to find that Tom is just waiting for his chance to show his hand. In what becomes a classic tale of revenge, Tom justifies his actions with these chilling words, which we can practically picture Lavalle softly whispering into a shaking Lovecraft's ear: "I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."
Amen to that.