The Perfect Retort, 90 Years Later: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Genre is often defined as works in conversation with each other. Some stories are broadly responsive to everything said previously; others do the equivalent of standing up on the table waving my drink around, announcing that now I’m going to tell you something you’ve never heard before. Then there’s LaValle’s elegant novella: The Ballad of Black Tom is a single line of dialogue, the perfect cutting response to that thing your racist uncle just said, dropped into the sudden silence around the Thanksgiving table.

Genre being what it is, silence can stretch long, and 90 years can still be perfect timing. The conversation around Lovecraft has grown more animated in recent years, and it’s not hard to find blunt discussion of his strengths, weaknesses, and overweening bigotries—but some things still cause people to back away slowly, shaking their heads.

Take, for example, “The Horror at Red Hook,” Lovecraft’s most nastily prejudiced story, so bad that Anne Pillsworth and I covered it in the reread only when our commenters bribed us. Nobody tries to defend the thing, but the honor of deconstruction is usually saved for stories with more redeeming characteristics.

And so “Red Hook” lay squamously on the table, un-addressed, for decades—not really okay. LaValle deserves a gold-plated ten foot pole for taking it on.

Ballad, sensibly, doesn’t hew too closely to its source material—though parts take place in the background of “Red Hook,” it cheerfully ignores or dismisses elements of the original that don’t mesh, and adds a great deal that’s new. The biggest addition, of course, is Charles Thomas Tester himself. If Lovecraft had tried to imagine an African American perspective on 1920s New York City, he’d have curled into a gibbering ball.

The first thing Tester tells us is that “people who move to New York always make the same mistake. They don’t see it.” They look for magic, and nothing will convince them it isn’t there. Tester makes his living from this error—not as a con man selling stage tricks to the rubes, but as a salesman who hooks up desperate sorcerers with dangerous artifacts. As Ballad opens, we see that he retains some sense of civic duty: he carefully defangs a book of eldritch lore before passing it, one page missing, to its bloodthirsty purchaser. We also see why this civic sense might be limited. He’s harassed on his errands by cops, train conductors, and everyone else deeply concerned lest a negro forget his place.

Tester, part of Lovecraft’s “poison cauldron where all the varied dregs of unwholesome ages mix their venom and perpetuate their obscene terrors,” gets hired by privileged eccentric Robert Suydam to play jazz (something he’s actually quite bad at, and practices largely for camouflage) at a party. This turns out to be the kind of party with invitations handwritten on pages from the Necronomicon. Lovecraft’s Suydam shows no clear motivation for his occult explorations, which involve such dastardly components as summoning Lilith, sacrificing his wife on their wedding night, and aiding illegal immigrants. Here, Lilith and the brief marriage are left out entirely, and Suydam’s after power of a very particular sort—he wants to play white savior to New York’s rejected and oppressed, for values of “white savior” that involve being Eaten Last by Cthulhu. Tester isn’t buying it, until the racism that he’s grown accustomed to as background noise suddenly becomes personal and deadly. Lose enough that you care about, and overturning civilization in chaos and blood can start to sound pretty good…

Midway through Ballad, we switch to the perspective of Lovecraft’s narrator, dilettante NYPD detective Malone. This adds suspense over just how tempted Tester is by Suydam’s offer, and what he intends to do about it. It also gives us an up-close view of Malone’s monstrosity—which was certainly there in the original, if not deliberately so. Still, I found Tester’s sections more engaging—one advantage of neo-Lovecraftiana over Lovecraft is the chance for more active protagonists to take the stage. LaValle’s Malone isn’t quite a passive reporter, but he’s still there mostly to observe the ineffable, while Tester is there to eff it.

At some point in reviewing new entries to the cosmic horror conversation, one has to answer two questions: Will this work for long-time fans of the genre; and will this work for people just poking their heads in?

Ballad of Black Tom should delight and disturb fans of cosmic horror, and of Lovecraft in particular, save for those who can’t bear criticism of Saint Howard. LaValle offers lightning-flash glimpses of inhuman vision, gloriously vast and terrifyingly incomprehensible—and makes the temptation to seek them out most terrifyingly comprehensible. In his world, that temptation comes not only from incurable academic curiosity, but from all the reasons that power can be tempting. And he reminds us—something that lurks behind many Lovecraft stories as a truly nameless fear—that the desire of the powerless for power is a rational, reasonable thing. Though LaValle doesn’t underline this too heavily, the implication is plain that perhaps we ought to make legitimate power available before someone gets desperate enough to call on the elder gods.

I can speak less well to cosmic horror’s new arrivals. But I think Ballad should work pretty well for them as well, and certainly for people who like the genre but haven’t read “Horror at Red Hook” (an excellent lifestyle choice, I’d add). While a couple of lines are particularly sharp in the context of the source material, nothing depends on it. And the racism that limns Tester’s city, the anger and fear and determination born of it, are all too accessible a context for the modern reader. The task of today’s cosmic horror—if it seeks to touch on readers’ real fears, and not simply reflect the squids of particular authors—is to connect the vast inhumanity of an uncaring universe with the vast inhumanity of entirely banal humans. This, LaValle accomplishes admirably. Cthulhu is a metaphor for us; we become, if we aren’t careful, a metaphor for Cthulhu.

The Ballad of Black Tom is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt from the novella here on Tor.com

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

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