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The Ballad of Black Tom

af Victor LaValle

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1,5298211,598 (3.87)84
People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eyes of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?… (mere)
Nyligt tilføjet afprivat bibliotek, Lightfellow, nicosilver, abidina, Jessica4422, Hellblazer, dlharwood
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LaValle addresses the racist beliefs of Lovecraft while still honoring the literary mythos that he created. With rhythmical timing and characters that are built on observation and little narration, LaValle paints a truly engrossing horror story. ( )
1 stem wvlibrarydude | Jan 14, 2024 |
This is Victor LaValle's attempt to reconcile his obvious love of H.P. Lovecraft's weird fiction with the writer's frequently unpalatable racism. Here LaValle inverts the story of [b:The Horror at Red Hook|2582189|The Horror at Red Hook|H.P. Lovecraft|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1266939978s/2582189.jpg|2598040], wherein illegal immigrants in Brooklyn are corralled into a cultist's ceremony to open an interdimensional portal. The racist implication is that the many ethnicities of New York City are barely different then hideous aliens in their own right. LaValle reframes the story through the perspective of one of Lovecraft's "swarthy multitudes." Injecting racial empathy into a Lovecraft story is an admirable challenge but I suspect it is a futile one.
This is the trouble I have with almost all fanfiction. The universe an author creates is a reflection of who they are; the hopes, fears, prejudices, and life story of an author combine into an unconscious soup from which stories are ladled out. Many complain when a new writer in a TV show makes a beloved character behave inconsistently, but most fan works do this with an entire setting. Lovecraft was able to conjure so effectively his paranoid and hateful cosmos because he was a fundamentally paranoid and hateful person. The Ballad of Black Tom's attempts at reconciling this universe with a compassionate narrator results in bathetic tonal shifts. It's a real mess. This isn't to say that the cosmic horror genre is inseparable from a reactionary mode, only that it requires a unique setting to do so. ( )
  ethorwitz | Jan 3, 2024 |
Reading this after reading The Horror at Red Hook, I think made me appreciate this one even more. It is 10x better than Red Hook and it actually has a plot! In all honesty, I'm not sure I would have been interested in this one if I hadn't read Red Hook first, but I wanted to see how LaValle would take the train wreck of Red Hook and turn it into something interesting, and I think he did a good job with it. The characters were much more fleshed out & had more depth, the plot was interesting and engaging, the themes & message are definitely still relevant to today (though the story takes place in 1920s NY),
and I definitely prefer LaValle's writing style to Lovecraft's. Though for me, this story wasn't "scary," in terms of horror and overall creepiness vibes, I'd say this one also does much better than Lovecraft's Red Hook. ( )
  VanessaMarieBooks | Dec 10, 2023 |
Nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and Shirley Jackson Awards, Victor LaValle’s riveting horror tale The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a spin and critique of the Lovecraft mythos, a man is beckoned to the threshold of apocalypse with the promise of seeing beyond the fabric of reality. The story is about 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.

As mentioned 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...

This is a story that juxtaposes Lovecraftian mythology against the racism and inequality of 1920s New York. It's poetic and it is frightening. The constant inequality that Tommy faces ends up being reason enough to justify drastic, desperate action to bring about the end of the novella, by dealing with forces Tommy doesn’t fully understand, but welcomes wholeheartedly by declaring:

"I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

Lovecraft pulled back the veil to show us his racist monsters. A writer of intense, morbid and cloistered passions, Lovecraft expressed a pervasive disgust with physical existence itself, as well as the cosmic dread for which he has often been celebrated. Yet he reserved his most intimate revulsion for those human beings he regarded as, for example, "a bastard mess of stewing Mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to the eye, nose and imagination."

LaValle pulls back the veil to show us how the monster of racism dooms us all. And The Ballad of Black Tom, although set in 1920s New York, couldn't be more timely. For the devil of racism and racial inequality is still with us today. ( )
  ryantlaferney87 | Dec 8, 2023 |
Difficult one - it's doing something interesting and important about racism and engaging with "Lovecraftian" horror but it's too short to really get into it, with the last chapter reeling in any potential moral ambiguity and making a strange contrast with the vivid depiction of racist society. I think a bit of it actually is this is clearly playing so deeply off Lovecraft stories, but I've never actually read one. I'm very familiar with the way the tropes have been used since, of course, and the book relies on you knowing them intimately. But there's things I think I've missed from the original stories - like, what's the reason given for cults wanting to summon these guys who'll just kill them and everyone else? If Lovecraft explains this maybe it would help me understand certain bits here. Actually just as I started writing this review I found there's a Lovecraft story The Horror at Red Hook which this is kind of based on and is racist even for him... again I missed out a bit by not having the Lovecraft knowledge I guess.

Beyond them he saw the police forces at the barricades as they muscled the crowd of Negroes back; he saw the decaying facade of his tenement with new eyes; 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?

“Indifference would be such a relief,”


The front half of the book depicts the life of a Black man (Charles Thomas Tester, aka Tommy) in New York City in the 20s - living with his disabled father in Harlem, making a living through... ok I was a little confused about this, but it includes a guitar (it's stated other people would describe him as a con man, and what I understand is he pretends to be a talented blues man on the street even though he can't really play or sing, and richer white people are taken in and pay him for his "authenticity"? I felt like I missed something there). We see the omnipresent racist violence and the threat of it that determines his whole life, his struggle to do a little better than his dad and not bow to being a "respectable" person, working a job for nothing that destroys you. It's vivid and well written, unsubtle and clear without being overbearing, well worked into the story. We encounter one person involved in Lovecraftian magic, Ma Att (she has a very strange role in the story, and I feel like her role was a bit extraneous honestly) and then a more major character, Suydam, who is much more like a typical Lovecraft character. Tommy is introduced to some of the basic concepts of Lovecraftian stuff, is shocked, then comes round to it after a major event. It's well written and the bit where he has his revelation is powerful.

After that things get a bit... confused I guess? I think this is the bit where it ties into the Red Hook Lovecraft story more heavily, and it's an unwelcome shift of focus. Instead of Tommy's feelings we get attached to a police officer called Malone. He does a good bit in the first part, showing the limits of a "sympathetic" cop. In the second part he becomes a quite boring "investigator" - a couple of chapters have him discovering Lovecraftian stuff that we've already seen. There's a reoccurrence of Ma Att, again in a way that feels a bit strange and extraneous, taking away time in a short book. Then magic happens, we get something that again is from the Red Hook story I think, police are involved some more... I admit I felt a bit bewildered by a lot of this. It's clear what's going on, but I don't know why. Suydam's plans make no sense to me. There's a large amount of "non white" immigrants involved, but the author makes basically no attempt to humanise them or look at the racism around them.

So then the finale has good bits, with some real gore, but the context is strange. We've lost Tommy's perspective pretty much, we're outsiders, our perspective character knows as little as us. Then you get police rolling up at tenement blocks with machine guns. Like, incredibly heavy duty machine guns. And so, as Malone enters the tenements with some police, entering a magically hidden cellar, the police outside machine gun the tenements, until everything is collapsing by the end. There's a certain something about the disposability of "Syrians and Spaniards, Africans too" who we're informed are "the local demigods of crime and debauchery." but we're left to infer it, because even Tommy in the first half doesn't like them.

The final showdown has an ending telegraphed as soon as Tommy, now Black Tom, calls Suydam "sir", but it's deliberately written with many details obscured. Clearly a lot has passed between Black Tom and Suydam, but we're not privy to it. It's a confusing scene, even if it's got some delightful gore including eyelid stripping


If it ended there I would have felt a little disappointed at some of the missing stuff but I could see what was being done with the ambiguity - at a certain point, isn't it Tommy's story? We unenlightened people can only see as if through a glass darkly. It's done an interesting perspective shift on Lovecraftian stories. There's then an chapter dealing with the aftermath for Malone, and again it ends in a perfect place - an unsubtle reminder of the message of the book that's a great line I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.

But then there's an extra chapter where we finally get Tommy's point of view again, and it feels like it undermines the message of the book and the ambiguity but without resolving any story questions. It feels like something unwilling to reckon with the difficulties it introduced itself in the first part. Tommy goes back to the club he was in earlier, meets his best friend, says he became a monster because he was told he was so he may as well be one, he should have just stayed with the "good things" he had in Harlem, agrees it was his fault his dad died, says he's doomed the world, that he should have been more like his father, because his father "never lost his soul". Then he JUMPS OUT A WINDOW AND DIES.

It feels like a total rebuke of anything that came out the first half. His dad was killed by a racist private detective, who invaded his apartment and immediately shot to kill. Yes, Tommy hid a piece of paper someone wanted in their apartment, but the private detective would have shot ANYWAY regardless of where he hid it, or maybe even if he didn't! We've already been over how being "like his father" would mean subjecting himself to backbreaking labour for poverty wages. He lived and breathed Harlem and only went elsewhere during the day to make money, and his words seem to recall the violence of white enforcers against him travelling. It feels like, after a story where he took control, at the end he just gives in.


I think I'd be very interested in reading another book by this author, I just felt confused at this one. Too much of a response to Lovecraft maybe. ( )
  tombomp | Oct 31, 2023 |
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"The seas will rise and our cities will be swallowed by the oceans," Black Tom said. "The air will grow so hot we won't be able to breathe. The world will be remade for Him, and His kind. That white man was afraid of indifference; well, now he's going to find out what it's like."
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People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eyes of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

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