Before I begin this review, let’s get something out of the way. If you think there is no place in fiction for real world concerns, for “politics”, or for notions of social justice, The Ballad of Black Tom is not a book for you. You can abandon this review, and skip this book entirely. If, however, you are open to the idea that a story might look different from a different sort of person’s point of view, if you are willing to entertain the notion that inhabitants of the United States who aren’t white men have been treated badly and might be very, very angry about that treatment, well, The Ballad of Black Tom might be exactly what you’re looking for.
The Ballad of Black Tom is not Lovecraftian. It is not a story that plays with the mythos Lovecraft established. No, The Ballad of Black Tom takes Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook and wholesale reinvents it, telling the story from the point of view not of the “heroic” investigators but one of the cultists. The shift in viewpoint brings multiple aspects often ignored to light and manages to honor Lovecraft’s imaginative worlds while simultaneously condemning the incredible racism of the man himself.
That Lovecraft was racist should not surprise anyone, even the most casual fan of his work. More than just a product of his times, Lovecraft expressed outright hatred for non-white humans in his private letters and peopled his stories with “savages” and “degenerates”. He routinely used the most vicious of stereotypes as stand-ins for Black, Asian, and Arab characters. An honest accounting of Lovecraft’s work would find few villains who weren’t inscrutable people of color summoning unimaginable monsters for reasons the, presumed, white audience could never comprehend.
What Victor LaValle does in The Ballad of Black Tom is to put you into the shoes of one particular Black cultist and make you understand why he might prefer Cthulhu to the world as it is. I try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, and I will avoid them here. Suffice it to say that by the time the blood is flowing and portals to other worlds are opening upon vast sleeping cities, you might not agree with the summoners, but, if you’ve read with an open mind, I think you might understand.
More than just an exercise in social justice though, The Ballad of Black Tom is a beautifully dark tale all its own. Even if The Horror at Red Hook didn’t exist, this book would be well worth reading. LaValle brings 1920s New York to life in a clear, fast moving prose that makes you feel like you are there. And when the horror starts to set in, LaValle doesn’t shy away. No, he keeps that same clear, concise, pointed tone, and he makes you feel every razor cut, every strange syllable intoned in a dark room.
I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a while. Once I started reading, I simply had to know what happened next. Every line of this book drips with eldritch horror and the pervasive suffocating racism of a country that had just started to move towards real equality. For any fan of Lovecraft, for any fan of tales of dark sorcery and hidden knowledge, and for any fan of unflinching social examination, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Go and read it. See if you find yourself praying for an indifferent god, too.