Where to Start with the Genre-Hopping Work of Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle’s career started with literary fiction. He earned an MFA from Columbia’s writing program (he’s now their Acting Fiction Director) and, like a lot of MFAs, published a collection of interconnected short stories as his first foray into the world of a published author. He has won a series of illustrious awards, including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

His own childhood reading, however, was shaped by horror. He loved the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter . As he got older and revisited those stories he saw that some, particularly Lovecraft’s, were riddled with hateful ideas about race and class. In his own work, LaValle has often used Lovecraft’s trick of the hapless every man who realizes he’s trapped in a horror story (the horror story being, you know, the universe) but with an acute sense of racial dynamics, class inequality, and tensions across gender lines. This careful interrogation of the status quo make all of his stories all the more rich and vital for readers who are looking for depth in their horror and fantasy.

When you’re reading an author who hops around genres as much as LaValle, you’re spoiled for choice in where to begin! So whether you’re in the mood for a dark fairy tale, an update on a haunted house story, or a conversation with the Founding Mother of Science Fiction, you’ll find the perfect book to dig into…

 

Literary Fiction (With a Little Mystery)

Slapboxing with Jesus told the stories of young Black and Latino men in New York. It won a PEN Open Book Award, an award dedicated to fostering diverse voices in publishing. Though dark, and often harrowing, the stories stayed in the realm of the realistic. LaValle’s first novel, The Ecstatic, returned to one of Slapboxing’s characters. Young Anthony is beginning to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia, and the novel deals with the realities of mental instability as his condition worsens. With Big Machine, LaValle edged a little closer to genre, and follows Ricky Rice, a man who has survived both addiction and time in a suicide cult, only to find himself summoned via letter to a mysterious compound in Vermont. With each book, LaValle edges further from standard literary fiction, while keeping the sharply-drawn prose and emotional truth of the best litfic.

 

Horror (With a Haunted-ish House)

With The Devil in Silver, LaValle stepped straight into horror, the genre he has now called home for four projects. This book is literary, beautifully wrought horror, sure, but it’s also scary as hell. A man named Pepper is picked up for a drunken fight, and rather than dealing with the paperwork of giving him the usual night in jail to sober up, they dump him at the New Hyde mental hospital in Queens. Under New York state law he can be held for observation for 72 hours, with no rights whatsoever…certainly not the right to a phone call. But once he’s had a few violent outbursts, and been drugged a few times, that 72 hours stretches in odd ways. No one knows he’s there. No one’s coming to save him. And the longer he’s there the more he realizes that he’s as forgotten as all the other patients who shuffle through their days with no hope of escape. This story would just be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but for one big, ominous, growling change: the other patients are sure there’s a real monster lurking among them, and that monster might just be the Devil.

 

Dark Fairy Tale

The Changeling is a terrifying tale of new parenthood and fairy tales come to life. Apollo Kagwe and Emma Valentine give birth to a beautiful baby boy they name Brian. But within a few weeks Emma begins to suspect that Brian is not what he seems, and the young family quickly descends into a nightmare as secret worlds are revealed behind the glittering façade of modern New York City. It isn’t spoiling anything to say that this is a legitimately frightening book, with standout chapters that are among the most gripping horror passages I’ve ever read. But again, some of the best moments are when LaValle tackles the realities of trying to live a fairy tale as a modern Black man. He has to go on a quest, like any proper Fairy tale hero, but if the quest involves digging for hidden knowledge within sight of a police station, or a following a crooked path through a forest in a fancy white neighborhood, he faces many more questions than his golden-haired Germanic counterparts would in a Grimm tale.

 

Lovecraftian Horror

The Ballad of Black Tom is a novella that takes on H.P. Lovecraft’s most racist story, “The Horror of Red Hook”, from a different angle. Tommy Tester is a young man living in Harlem, who hustles people by pretending to be a bluesman, and, more dangerously, deals in occult texts. Just like every Lovecraft protagonist, he ends up seeing the squamous reality that hides behind the surface of life, but unlike Lovecraft’s characters, Tester if a Black man who is also under constant threat from corrupt cops, white supremacist thugs, and an entire system built to keep him “in his place.” When he tries to escape that place by doing business with a worshiper of the Old Gods, things get very bad very fast.

 

Politically Conscious Horror

LaValle teamed up with artist Dietrich Smith to engage with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, creating a comic called Destroyer that explores a little-discussed corner of Mary Shelley’s tale, while also tackling police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. The story, which is being published by BOOM! Studios, follows Dr. Jo Baker, a descendant of Victor Frankenstein’s last living relative, Edward. When Dr. Baker’s son, Akai is shot by police on his way home from baseball practice, she is naturally devastated. But when no one is charged with his murder, her pain transforms intro rage, and she turns to history and science to find a way to save her son. She’s able to bring Akai back as a postmodern cyborg Prometheus, but he’s still a child—nowhere near as set on vengeance as his mother. Luckily for her, her ancestor’s original, un-killable monster still stalks the earth, and he might be ready to come back from Antarctica and make humanity pay for the pain they’ve caused him.

LaValle has spoken at length about his love for Frankenstein, and this update grapples with the intersections of race and gender that are only hinted at by Shelley’s work.

 

Even if horror isn’t typically your thing, LaValle is dragging some classic work into our modern world, and asking all the most important questions, so go forth and enjoy your reading!

Leah Schnelbach does love horror, and this is some of the best she’s ever read. Come discuss monsters on Twitter!

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