It is well known that iconic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was a racist. Last year, the World Fantasy Awards decided to cease having Lovecraft’s image on its trophy for that reason. Lovecraft died in 1937. Many who opposed the banishing of his visage on the award commented that he was “of his time,” and that discrimination was common in the era in which he lived. His personal views certainly remain offensive but they are beautifully tackled in The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, a terrific novella that employs Lovecraft’s fictional universe but features an African American man as the narrative’s protagonist.
In 1924, Charles Thomas Tester is residing in Harlem with his father. Charles is an untalented amateur guitarist who supplements their income by engaging in shady activities. He does errands for occult practitioners; white folk who pay him handsomely for acquiring the items they seek. The boroughs of New York City are a bastion for sorcery, and Tester is aware that some of the objects he delivers have extremely dangerous potential. Despite his pragmatism and street smarts, he is in constant peril. The otherworldly aspects of his work have obvious risks. As does being a person of color in a bigoted culture.
Tester’s transition to becoming the mystical militant referred to as “Black Tom” is precipitated by a despicable and devastating event. The 20-year-old philosophizes that “Mankind didn’t make messes; mankind was the mess.”
Although a mere 149 pages in length, The Ballad of Black Tom is a horror tale packed with potency and poignancy. The book’s dedication reads: “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” That ironic emotional conflict is further delineated through an odious character whose surname is Howard, the same as Lovecraft’s first name. The subtle reference conveys a punch that registers both a tribute and an admonishment. Victor LaValle brilliantly takes some of Lovecraft’s literary motifs and transforms them into social consciousness. To say this is no small feat is a major understatement.
February 16th is the scheduled release date for The Ballad of Black Tom, a Tor Books publication.