In recent years, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft have become increasingly problematic. His personal views regarding race and class permeate his writing, resulting in works that are challenging at best and nearly impossible to enjoy for contemporary readers. While the subject of Lovecraft’s views on race have been the focus of many debates and disagreements, between fans and scholars, Victor Lavalle, an award winning author and instructor at Columbia University, started reading Lovecraft around the age of eleven. As he grew older, he began to recognize Lovecraft’s rampant racism, which left him conflicted. As an adult, Lavalle decided to tackle these uncomfortable topics head on. He took one of Lovecraft’s most insensitive stories, “The Horror at Red Hook,” reimagining and reinventing, while also honoring the author he loved since childhood. The result is The Ballad of Black Tom, and it is magnificent.
Charles Thomas Tester is a young African-American man making his way in New York through various, mostly harmless, hustles and cons. While he lives in Harlem, Tester knows how to navigate into other parts of the city, like Flushing Meadows or Red Hook, for brief forays and then get himself back to where he “belongs.” On his latest outing, he delivers an arcane book to an old woman in Queens. He doesn’t trust her. In fact, he knows she is hiding something, either about herself, the old book, or both. What he doesn’t know is how right he is, and that the delivery of the book sets in motion a series of events which could bring about the end of our world.
Using “The Horror at Red Hook,” as his jumping off point, Lavalle quickly and deftly takes the best story points from the original and weaves a new, but related, tale that is in every way superior to the original. Lavalle fleshes out Robert Suydam, the eccentric book collector and dabbler in the dark arts, and provides him with more believable motivations for the events to come. Lavalle does the same with the narrator of the original, Detective Malone, providing him with increased motivations for participating in the events chronicled.
Lavalle’s triumph though is Charles Thomas Tester, a young black man living in New York City in the early 1920s, who knows his way around the streets. He knows how he must behave, and which props to use, to become invisible. He is ambitious enough to hope for more than the lives his parents have lived, but also realizes that those hopes don’t go very far due to the “curse written on his skin.” He is also aware enough to recognize that the odd occurrences he is witnessing, and equally odd artifacts he is transporting between the boroughs, may be an opportunity for him to use to his advantage. He has the perfect perspective for the first half of the story.
While The Ballad of Black Tom chronicles the magical events alluded to in "The Horror of Red Hook," more disturbingly it also poignantly exposes how prejudice and bigotry actively create the monsters that they so often claim to fear. While there are supernatural forces, just waiting to be released, and powerful enough to destroy the world, it is the systemic racial bigotry portrayed that is the real monster of this story. This novel is chilling, alarming and a great deal of fun. It also leaves you with much more to consider, in a constructive sense, regarding who or what we are afraid of, than Lovecraft’s mythical Cthulhu. Should we be cautious of tapping into dark, mystical forces? Possibly. Should we be terrified of the hatred mankind holds against those who are not “like us”? Absolutely.