Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

Tor, 2016
149 pp

(read in March)

"You're a monster, then..."
"I was made one." 

The Ballad of Black Tom is a book that takes H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Horror at Red Hook" and stands it on its head.  

LaValle says in an interview that he started reading Lovecraft around age 11, and found himself "hooked."  He says that while he liked Lovecraft's monsters, he "loved the ideas even more, the scale of his imagination. Cosmic as fuck." This all changed when he turned sixteen, when, as he notes,
"I lost youthful innocence, I guess. Or I began to see things I'd once missed. Or ignored. Things that should've been obvious, but hasn't been."
After going through a short list of what "should've been obvious," he mentions that perhaps one of these is that he started to realize that his "beloved Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one hell of a racist."  Not only that, but he also mentions that his writing was pretty bad. Still, he continues to have a certain admiration for HP Lovecraft, and he wondered what would happen if he "reimagined" "Horror at Red Hook" and brought the story forth from the points of view of the people "playing the background."  It's a ballsy move, in my opinion, and it works.

I won't go much into the plot here, but a little appetite whetting might be in order.  Tommy Tester, who lives in Harlem in a small apartment with his father, is a musician. He is playing on the streets one day when he's noticed by Robert Suydam,  a wealthy white man who wants him to play for him at his home. The man offers Tommy a lot of money for a gig, and Tommy takes him up on it since the money would keep him and his father in groceries for a long while.   It isn't long, though, until Tommy realizes that his new employer is no ordinary guy -- that he is fixated on a bizarre being he calls The Sleeping King.  After the first night, Tommy is terrified and decides not to return.  However, when the cops do something horrific that completely changes his life, Tommy realizes that "a fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive," and goes back to Red Hook and Suydam.  After all, he says, after what's happened to him, "Indifference would be such a relief."

The real crux of this book for me is reflected in something that Tommy says to Malone (remember him? The detective who survived "the horror at Redhook" in the original).  The two are having a discussion about Suydam, and Malone asks him why he got involved with him.  Tommy's answer is just genius and speaks volumes:
"I bear a hell within me...and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin." 
Now that's a story.  And it's one that LaValle does very well.

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