“The Ballad of Black Tom” Victor LaValle – book review

While discussing the best horror books to read this Halloween, one of the WeirdLit group members, recommended me to give The Ballad of Black Tom a shot, and so I did. Is Victor LaValle’s weird fiction short novel as good as people say? Let’s find out.

"The Ballad of Black Tom" Victor LaValle - book review

For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my confused feelings.

Let’s start with saying a few words about the author himself. Victor LaValle, raised in Queens, New York, has been the recipient of multiple awards such as Shirley Jackson Award, American Book Award, or a Whiting Writers’ Award. In The Ballad of Black Tom, the writer decided to re-imagine events we know from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Hook. If you have read it, you probably know that while it’s not the best work by the writer from Providence, it’s definitely one of his most racist ones. Victor Lavalle presents us a similar story, but from a black perspective, and he does it well. 

In The Ballad of Black Tom, we can see the New York of 1920s with all its poverty and brutality. The story is divided into two parts; the first one focuses on Tommy Tester, a black man trying to get by and provide for his father and himself. One day he is hired to obtain an ominously looking yellow book, supposedly containing the key to the so-called Supreme Alphabet. The tome immediately brings up to mind the famous novel The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Also, Tommy’s employer, Ma Att would no doubt feel like home in some weird nightmare. This first contact with the unknown sets the whole story in motion. How will it end for Tommy? You will have to find out by yourselves. 

Insensitive minds always dispel true knowledge.

The second part of The Ballad of Black Tom focalizes detective Malone, the protagonist of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. We quickly realize that he possesses more obscure knowledge than one would expect. While investigating the case connected to Tommy Tester, he stumbles upon a mysterious older man, also included in The Horror at Red Hook – Robert Suydam. 

I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.

The fact that unholy creatures resting at the bottom of the oceans might be dangerous, while unsettling, is not exactly surprising. That’s precisely what would we expect of them. The situation is different when it comes to other people, though. In The Ballad of Black Tom they are the real monsters. After finishing the book, I was under an impression similar to the one I got after watching Joker with amazing Joaquin Phoenix playing the leading role – this catastrophe could be so easily averted. Victor LaValle’s protagonist didn’t become Black Tom overnight. It was a long process, involving a lot of ruthlessness, cruelty, and apathy from other people. 

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions on themselves.

Summing up:

While The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is no doubt an entertaining read, it’s also much more than just another story from the universe of Cthulhu Mythos. The author took on a hazardous mission of re-imagining The Horror at Red Hook, and the result is great. If you are looking for an interesting horror to read this Halloween – I think that you won’t be disappointed with this one. 

Grade: 7.5/10

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Best short stories by H.P. Lovecraft

Recently I have written about great weird fiction short stories by Thomas Ligotti, whereas this time I take a closer look at another classic of this genre – H.P. Lovecraft himself. It won’t be a book review, though, but a ranking of my favorite works created by this author. How would your list look like? Please let me know in the comments. Enjoy.

Best short stories by H.P. Lovecraft - Weird Pond

15. At the Mountains of Madness

A group of scientists entrapped in the frozen Antarctic world, which hides a terrible mystery deep beneath the ice – it sounds a bit like the excellent movie by John Carpenter The Thing, doesn’t it? Well, I think that the atmosphere of the story is pretty similar, but the sheer scale of the presented history is far greater in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The fact that the list starts with such an excellent text is fitting testament to the greatness of this author.

14. The Doom that Came to Sarnath

This story shows a different aspect of Lovecraft’s works – a more fantastic one. The description of the magnificent Sarnath located on the ruins of gray city Ib is particularly impressive here and will stay with you long after finishing the read. If you want to see another face of the writer from Providence, you shouldn’t miss on this short story. 

13. The Thing on the Doorstep

An exciting short story full of references to, for example, Shadow over Innsmouth (which is also going to appear on the list). The disturbing atmosphere and suggestive descriptions make the reader feel uncomfortable from the very beginning of the text. 

12. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Similarly to The Doom that Came to Sarnath this story also shows us more fantastic Lovecraft. Randolph Carter’s journey through the Dreamlands is an unforgettable experience for any weird fiction fan. 

11. The Rats in the Walls

The nightmares presented in this story are true masterpieces of horror literature, and there is a chance that they will stay in your memory for good. Its plot is intriguing, and the surprising ending surely will give you goosebumps. In my opinion, The Rats in the Walls is undoubtedly one of the best Lovecraft’s works. 

10. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

One of the best known short stories, written by Lovecraft. We get necromancers, possessions, dreadful experiments, and an excellent, climactic confrontation at the end of the text. While some people say that there are a few dull and too long fragments in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, I still think that it’s an excellent horror story, definitely worth the time invested in it. 

9. The Outsider

I have to admit that for some time I considered placing The Outsider a little higher, because it’s one of the unique stories written by H.P. Lovecraft. In this case, we no longer look at the world through the eyes of some scholar, who discovers a terrible secret, which starts slowly driving him mad. Instead, we have an opportunity to get to know the story from the monster’s perspective. One of my personal favorites.

8. The Haunter of the Dark

A young painter, during exploration of some abandoned church, which used to be a home for sect conducting ungodly rituals, gets tangled up in a terrifying story. The Haunter of the Dark is a true masterpiece when it comes to disturbing atmosphere and keeping the reader on the edge of the seat. 

7. The Whisperer in Darkness

After a massive flood somewhere around Vermont, the river begins to wash out bizarre creatures, which don’t resemble anything know to humans. One of the professors from Miskatonic University, at first very skeptical, begins to correspond with Henry Akeley – another researcher who experiences some disturbing events on his skin. I think that it’s worth to mention that one of the inspirations for The Whisperer in Darkness was the discovery of Pluto, which Lovecraft associated with Yuggoth – a planet inhabited by mysterious beings. 

6. The Shadow Out of Time

In The Shadow Out of Time H.P. Lovecraft allows us to get to know a big part of his universe’s lore – the history of the Great Race of Yith. One of the themes often appearing in the writer’s texts – the shallowness and pointlessness of the human race in the face of great powers lurking somewhere in space – is even more overwhelming than usual. 

5. The Dreams in the Witch House

The main character, Walter Gillman, decides to rent an attic room which previously was inhabited by a witch, who mysteriously disappeared from Salem jail in 1692. He soon discovers that many of people he moved into the apartment before him, died in strange circumstances. 

The vision of demonic Brown Jenkin, witch’s companion is haunting, and the same goes to Gillman’s nightmares. The way in which Lovecraft builds tension up to the terrifying finale is just breathtaking. The Dreams in the Witch House is definitely one of my favorite horror short stories.

4. The Shadow Over Innsmouth

A story that later inspired, for example, creation of great horror video game Call of Cthulhu – Dark Corners of the World is, no doubt, a true horror literature icon.

Robert Olmstead tells us a story, when he accidentally found himself in the infamous city of Innsmouth. The suggestive descriptions of ghostly, crumbling town inhabited by fallen creatures who once were humans, is a disturbing experience you won’t forget.

3. The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu is a collection of notes written by the narrator – Francis Wayland, who is trying to unravel the mystery behind some alarming events. The scale of the history is enormous – the story takes us on a trip around the world, we visit the United States, China, New Zealand, and even Antarctica, while the Cthulhu cult threatens whole humanity. In my opinion, The Call of Cthulhu is a great pick to start one’s adventure with H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.

2. The Dunwich Horror

The story takes place in a ghastly, ruined town of Dunwich, haunted by ungodly creatures out of this world. Abominable rituals, forbidden books, and overwhelming dark atmosphere – that’s a very good description for this story. If you liked this one, I think that you might also want to take a look at the card game The Dunwich Legacy.

1. The Colour Out of Space

After the fall of a meteor, people and animals inhabiting the nearby area start to descend into madness, while at night, strange otherworldly lights come out of a particular well. The dark climate of the story, its suffocating atmosphere of dread and terror and the feeling of helplessness that accompanies us from the very beginning of the story is simply unique. If I had to choose one story which might encourage people to read H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, I would pick The Colour out of Space

So, that’s it – my favorite short stories written by H.P. Lovecraft. How would your list look like? Which horror story written by this author is your favorite? Please let me know in the comments.

If you would like to start your adventure with H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, we recommend buying, for example, this collection: