Books, Reviews

Book review – THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, by Victor LaValle


The blurb:

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 eye 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?

My review:

Full disclosure: I haven’t read a single book or story by Lovecraft (though I do know a bit about Cthulu). I mention this because ‘The Ballad of Black Tom’ revisits Lovecraft’s short story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, but I can’t and won’t comment on how LaValle’s tale fits together with the Lovecraftian story-verse. And while I’m sure there are things I missed in the story because I haven’t read Lovecraft, Victor LaValle’s tale stands up very well on its own.

This novella is a brilliant piece of storytelling, and LaValle starts off by anchoring the story firmly in the real world, before it goes decidedly and horror-ifically off the realism-rails into bloody and brutal nightmare territory.

‘The Ballad of Black Tom’ is set in 1920s Harlem and New York, and LaValle’s description of that time and place is engrossing and visceral: you feel like you’re walking those streets with the main character Tommy Tester as he rides the train, as he hustles for money with his guitar, as he tries to stay invisible in the eyes of the police. You feel the ever-present racism of the era, too: because it affects every facet of Tommy’s existence. There’s a wonderful scene in the book when Tommy returns to Harlem after spending a harrowing day and night in a white neighbourhood with the mysterious and rather sinister Robert Suydam. With just a few sentences, LaValle captures the physical relief Tommy feels when he returns home safe and sound:

Harlem. Only away for a night, but he’d missed the company. The bodies close to his on the street, boys running through traffic before the streetlights turned, on their way to school and daring each other to be bold.

The other part of the story, of course, is the world of magic and supernatural evil that Tommy enters. LaValle makes this world feel just as alive and real as the streets of Harlem, and one of the unforgettable characters in that part of the story is the mysterious Ma Att. One of my favourite scenes in the book, is when the white police detective Malone first encounters her:

But behind that woman, Malone swore he saw – what? More of her. Some great bulk trailed behind her, off into the distance of the gloomy front hall … In the darkness of the house, something enormous rose, then swayed like the tail of a venomous snake.

For me, the strongest feature of ‘The Ballad of Black Tom’ is how it brings together the horrors of the real world: racism, police brutality, murder, injustice; with the supernatural horrors and evil powers at work beneath the surface of that real world. The end result is a story that deals with the human capacity for evil, the effects of repression and injustice, and the evil and despair that can exist just beneath the thin veneer of so-called civilized society.

Oh yeah, and it also scared the pants off me in the end.



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