The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavelle
Tor Books, 2016
Available: Paperback, Kindle edition, Audio
This could be one of the most important books of the year, maybe in quite some time. The cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, especially his stories of the “Old Ones”, the Cthulhu Mythos, has been a driving force for decades: however, most of the recent books standing in the shadow that he has cast, have been disappointing.
Lovecraft’s virulent racism has been the topic of considerable controversy over the last several years. The question of how to reconcile his problematic views with his genius has been a difficult one for readers and lovers of horror to wrestle with. In The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor Lavelle responds to Lovecraft’s racism by re-visioning of one of his most racist stories, “The Horror at Red Hook”, bringing it up to date by presenting it from a fresh point of view. Excellent on its own, The Ballad of Black Tom is easily one of the finest horror stories bridging the racism of our dreadful past to our present-day troubles.
The story features an African-American musician and hustler, Charles Thomas Tester, living in downtrodden Harlem in 1920s New York. He travels to Flushing Meadows, delivering dangerous occult items, always hunted by gangs and bigoted cops, knowing each trip might be his end. One evening, he meets up with the mysterious Robert Suydam, who promises Charles a fine payday to play at his party. Charles is unaware that the man seeks to awaken the “Sleeping King.” After suffering daily, with the threats of street life in jazz-age New York, the otherworldly doesn’t frighten him much… but it should.
Lavelle is a strong, talented writer with a voice I would like to hear more often. His style is as smooth as the notes of the forbidden song Charles plays, which transforms 1920’s New York into the living, breathing organism it needs to be for this novella. The Ballad of Black Tom is a twisting tale of the Lovecraft mythos that is both refreshing and suspenseful. I could easily have read more of Charles’ journey, which ends with a surprising, but utterly satisfying conclusion. If this book is not claiming awards next season, there’s something wrong with the system. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by David Simms