In Victor LaValle’s riveting horror tale The Ballad of Black Tom, a man is beckoned to the threshold of apocalypse with the promise of seeing beyond the fabric of reality. It’s an impulse that underpins many of LaValle’s novels and stories: a pursuit of what lurks beyond the surface, a desire to see clearly the monsters that we create. LaValle puts it to work powerfully in his new novella, the story of Tommy Tester, a 20-year-old black man hustling to pay rent and take care of his father in Harlem in 1924. After being hired to deliver an arcane book to a mysterious woman in Queens, Tommy gets entangled in the plans of the wealthy Robert Suydam, who is intent on calling forth ancient gods, and Detective Malone, who investigates him.
Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will recognize these latter two characters—both white—and their plots from Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook”; among other things LaValle’s novella is a clever retelling of Lovecraft’s story about occult forces at work in an immigrant neighborhood. The Ballad of Black Tom stands on its own as a compelling weird tale of Jazz-age New York City, but its penetrating examination of Lovecraft’s creations and how they reflect racism’s profound influence on our cultural imagination is where it really shines.
The Ballad of Black Tom couldn’t be timelier, for Lovecraft’s influence on pop culture is more powerful than ever, even as criticisms of his racism and xenophobia have swept through literary and fan circles. As if to signal that we’ve reached critical consensus that the granddaddy of cosmic horror is profoundly problematic, last fall the World Fantasy Awards announced that Lovecraft’s visage would no longer appear on their trophy. But if we agree that racism is endemic to his work, what do we do with Lovecraft now? What do we make of his imaginative legacy? Unsurprisingly, most modern writers and artists who borrow from Lovecraft distance themselves from problems with his texts and the man himself. The Ballad of Black Tom is thrilling in part because LaValle uses them instead as his starting point, re-imagining Lovecraft’s universe through the eyes of a black man.
LaValle imagines Tommy Tester as a part of a living, breathing New York City: “Walking through Harlem first in the morning was like being a single drop of blood inside an enormous body that was waking up.” Lovecraft loathed New York City. In his stories, civilization was always under attack from dark, primitive barbarism, and no place epitomized that battle like New York. “The Horror at Red Hook” has become infamous for Lovecraft’s racist depictions of “Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and Negro elements impinging upon one another” in a “babel of sound and filth” that “repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery.” LaValle flips the script on Lovecraft right from the get-go, giving over the first half of his novella to Tester’s point of view and placing him at the center of events reminiscent of Lovecraft’s story.
In LaValle’s tale, Tester is invited to be a part of Robert Suydam’s plot to conjure the Great Old Ones, ancient, tentacled creatures that are at the core of Lovecraft’s mythos. Suydam opens Tester’s eyes to the frightening cosmic indifference of the monsters. But when getting involved with Suydam brings down the law on Tommy, he realizes that in light of the racist criminality of the NYPD,
a fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve… he saw the patrol cars parked in the middle of the road like three great black hounds waiting to pounce on all these gathered sheep. What was indifference compared to malice?
The world will always be a devil’s bargain, Tommy realizes. It’s just a matter of which devils he wants to deal with.
Tommy hustles for a living, but it’s also his survival skill. It allows him to navigate and exploit expectations of him as a black man: “Give people what they expect and you can take from them all that you need.” When Tommy appears in the second half of LaValle’s novella—a retelling of “The Horror at Red Hook” from the point of view of the story’s original protagonist Detective Malone—he has become Black Tom, a subservient lieutenant of Robert Suydam. In The Ballad of Black Tom, Tommy channels his rage and suffering into a hustle that culminates in a grisly, blood-soaked climax in Red Hook. It’s a scene as enlightening as it is frightening. Lovecraft pulled back the veil to show us his racist monsters; LaValle pulls back the veil to show us how the monster of racism dooms us all.
LaValle’s novella is set nearly a century ago, but it couldn’t be more relevant. A white detective recalls his murder of an unarmed black man in a “matter-of-fact tone”: “I felt in danger for my life. … I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded it and did it again.” that’s matched by the casual indifference of police to the crime. The police force that Malone brings to Red Hook includes military grade weapons like anti-aircraft guns that “looked like a trio of cannons, better for a ground war than breaching the fronts of a building.” The Ballad of Black Tom underscores that police shootings and the militarization of police in minority communities aren’t new injustices, but part of the grinding mechanics of racism that have always been at work in our country, the ancient monster underneath American society since its beginning.
The hashtag #NoLivesMatter started appearing on Twitter last year as a response to #BlackLivesMatter, and tweets tagged with it often feature images of Cthulhu or references to cosmic indifference. Most are clearly intended as snarky jokes, but they’re also oddly, perhaps accidentally, insightful. For Lovecraft’s cosmicism springs from the same fear underpinning the racist response “All Lives Matter”: the fear that recognizing the subjectivity of black men and women threatens the social structure that assures and validates white superiority. In a letter to a friend in 1931—a letter asserting that “the black is vastly inferior,” and that Americans must be on guard against “racial and cultural mongrelism”—Lovecraft wrote:
Nothing means anything, in the end, except with reference to that continuous immediate fabric of appearances and experiences of which one was originally part. … Here we have the normal phenomenon of race-prejudice in a nutshell—the legitimate fight of every virile personality to live in a world where life shall seem to mean something. … Just how the black and his tan penumbra can ultimately be adjusted to the American fabric, yet remains to be seen. … No one wishes them any intrinsic harm, and all would rejoice if a way were found to ameliorate such difficulties as they have without imperiling the structure of the dominant fabric. It is a fact, however, that sentimentalists exaggerate the woes of the average negro. Millions of them would be perfectly content with servile status if good physical treatment and amusement could be assured them.
Lovecraft fans often rationalize his racism as being a product of his time, or suggest that we should look “beyond” it. But Lovecraft’s cosmic horror was a deeply racist construct, irrevocably linked to a need to assert white superiority. As some critics and writers have started to argue, that’s all the more reason we should not dismiss it. In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle is not just interested in interrogating Lovecraft, but in understanding how he continues to both reflect and shape our imaginations. Now, more than ever, it’s important to remember that white anxieties still reside in the places where black and brown monsters lurk.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. Tor.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.