“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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