Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. This is true of Manhattan but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince it isn’t here.”

Title: The Ballad of Black Tom

Author: Victor LaValle

Genre: Horror Fiction, Dark Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Publication date: February 16, 2016

Format: Audible

Narrator: Kevin R. Free

Synopsis:  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?

Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone

Why I picked this audio book up:  Back in the early 90’s, I was introduced to a Tabletop Role Playing Game called The Call of Cthulhu. Based on the Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920’s and 1930’s and expanded on by other writers, Cthulhu was a genre of Horror that I had previous not been exposed to.  Secret cults, Cosmic Horrors and Ancient Gods were not in the writings I had consumed up until this point and I was hooked!  It would be years before I read Lovecraft’s actual stories and found that I preferred many of the later writers playing in his universe.

Let’s address the enormous pachyderm in the room – if you know anything about Howard Phillip Lovecraft, you know that he was a huge xenophobe and flaming racist.  This fact seeps into his writing and smears everything it touches like Shathak, the Mistress of Abyssal Slime.  Some have tried to write it off as a man writing in his time, but when his own wife commented on how over the top it was, you know it has to be more than that.

This year, I decided to give a Reading Challenge a try.  I usually get part of the way through one of these and give up about mid-year and just start reading whatever I want, but I do acquire at least a few new authors to either continue to follow or avoid like the plague and that in itself seems like a good thing. One of the categories of this particular Reading Challenge is “Read a Horror Story by a Black Author”. That is how I came across this real gem!

Arguably one of Lovecraft’s most egregiously xenophobic stories is “Horror at Red Hook”.  In addition to the blatant racism, it isn’t even particularly well written. If you have not read, don’t bother.  Even Lovecraft thought it was bad.  He was attempting to write a detective story in order to make money and it didn’t work.  It was eventually printed in “Weird Tales” and strangely enough was one of his few stories to be put in a book in his lifetime.

So imagine my delight when I came across a rewriting of “Horror at Red Hook” with a black protagonist! 

Why I kept listening to it:  Set perfectly in the Jazz Era of 1920’s New York City, the story pulls you in immediately.  Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester lives in Harlem with his prematurely aging father and does what he has to to keep a roof over their heads. He has a reputation for being a go-to guy for things that are not strictly legal, but he isn’t trying to change the world, just to live in it.  Born to be an entertainer, but lacking talent, Tommy has found that a guitar case and a couple of reasonably passable songs can hide what a man is really about.  When he is hired to find and deliver a strange book for an even stranger white woman in Queens, he comes to the attention of things he would have been better to remain hidden.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a tale of magic and power and the way that white entitlement is paid for by the BIPOC people around them.  LaValle builds a beautiful narrative from the toxic hate of the New York City streets and Lovecraft himself, and shows it from the perspective of a Black man.  I think Victor LaValle sums up perfectly the intent of his novella in its dedication – “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”

The narrator, Kevin R. Free, is a new name to me, but one that I will look for in the future.  His rich deep voice increases both the intimacy and grandeur of the setting, but the humanity of Tommy himself.

Who I would recommend it to:  First, anyone who is a fan of Lovecraft’s writings.  It is a beautiful creation in the larger Mythos.  I would also recommend it to people who hate Lovecraft’s writing, but enjoy that larger Mythos.  It is a well written and crafted story that doesn’t hide the racism of the setting, but rises above it and shines a critical light on it that Lovecraft’s own belief’s would never allow him to.  And lastly, for any fans of horror.  While not gory or traditionally spooky, the sense of out of place and uncertain dread that is such a part of the Mythos comes through and gets under the reader’s (or listener’s) skin.


Published by Otter Limits

Social Media Manager - Real Women of Gaming/ Storyteller: That Which Can Eternal Lie/ President/Event Coordinator - Equal Opportunity Geeks/ Co-Founder/Storyteller - Otter Geekdom

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