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A Song Like This

The Ballad of Black Tom

By Victor Lavalle 

12 Feb, 2018

Miscellaneous Reviews


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Victor Lavalle’s 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom is a standalone tale of cosmic horror. It is a retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook” told from a perspective Lovecraft would never have considered.

Charles Thomas Tester, black and forever denied full membership in American society, supports his aged father by serving as middleman between rich New York clients and the occult community. They want artefacts of power; he can provide. But Tester is careful. He does his best to limit his exposure to dread powers. Let rich white fools dabble in the forbidden; Tester is a sensible man who plans to remain alive and sane.

Tester makes just two mistakes.

First, he earns the enmity of Ma Att by judiciously ensuring that the book of power he delivers to her is missing one crucial page. In so doing, he lives up to the letter of his agreement, but limits the powers that she can wield … thus sparing the rest of the world a deal of grief. Ma Att will not forgive and she has the power to make him suffer.

Second, he catches the attention of wealthy would-be occultist Robert Suydam. Suydam hires Tester (who pretends to be a jazz musician when necessary) to play at a party. By involving himself with Suydam, Tester attracts the attention of Suydam’s family. The family is determined to grab Suydam’s money and a defenceless black man may be just the opening they need. 

The family’s hired guns (two bent detectives) attempt to bully Tester and end by gunning down his father. They claim self-defence. The man was brandishing a guitar and it looked like a rifle. They confidently expect to get away with murder. It’s not as if the courts would reject their claim. Or that Tester will be able to retaliate.

Think again.


For the record, although I seem to spend a surprising amount of time roleplaying games like this 

and this,

I’m not a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction. I have not read The Horror at Red Hook,” the story on which Lavalle is riffing. More exactly, that my editor provided me with a link to the original but I did not finish it. If you’d like to read it, it is here. Be warned the goggles do nothing. 

But other people, who I must presume are more familiar with the source material, liked this story enough that it won the Shirley Jackson Award, the British Fantasy Award, and was a finalist for the relevant Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards.

As it happens, the story is in no sense dependent on the work that inspired it for its effect. Prejudice and unthinking cruelty are an undeniable fact of human existence. So too is the desire for revenge. The twist in this story is that Tester’s enemies see him only as an inferior, a nonentity. Even his supposed ally Suydam underestimates him. What Tester’s enemies learn is that intelligence and determination can circumvent the barriers thrown up by wealth and prejudice. 

I read The Count of Monte Cristo back to back with The Ballad of Black Tom. The books are a good match; I think Dantès and Tester would have a lot to discuss on the topic of vengeance. And when to stop. 

The Ballad of Black Tom is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).