The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor D. LaValle
I keep saying that horror lit is not my thing, and yet I seem to read a fair amount of it. When I stop to discern why, it seems the answer is because there is so much good horror lit out there right now. And for me, it’s not so much about the genre as it is about the quality of the writing.
Take Victor D. LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom, for example. I read about this title when it first came out, but needing to be somewhat vicious in culling my TBR pile, I initially passed on it. Still, it kept popping up in reviews, in social media posts, in awards nominations (Bram Stoker Awards, Goodreads Choice Awards, NPR Book of the Year Awards, the Nebula). Finally, I figured I should give it a try.
And now I can confidently say, so should you.
The book is about Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester, a young black man in New York in 1924. Tommy is a fairly inoffensive hustler who knows his game, including how people look at you differently when you wear a slightly scuffed suit, and how holding a guitar case in a white neighborhood can make you invisible – just another down and out musician. His dangerous yet exciting world is full of scams, jazz, superstition – and magic. He gets pulled into this magical world when he tries a con – or is it an urge to save humanity? – while delivering a very powerful book to a reclusive sorceress (who lives in Queens). When his own racist, corrupt world fails him, he joins with a wealthy white man looking to summon a demonic deity and becomes the infamous Black Tom – a doomed construct of legend around whom the power of darkness swirls.
Apparently, The Legend of Black Tom is both a tribute to and critique of H.P. Lovecraft, a writer who author LaValle eagerly devoured as a child without realizing the depth of Lovecraft’s racism and fear. I was not aware of this when I read The Legend of Black Tom, but looking back on it with this knowledge, I became even more appreciative of the richness of the telling.
Because for me, the book excels not only in its darkness and its horror, but in the way it fluently depicts New York in the Jazz Age, the music, the sounds, the action and movement of the city, its inhabitants – and its blatant racism. The narrative resonates, especially in its relationships and their acceptance of “how life is,” even as it cuts to the bone both in sentiment and sorrow. In the end, we may not condone Black Tom’s actions, but we do understand them.
Powerful stuff, especially for such a slim volume so quickly read, yet one that will linger for a long time after. A very good read, indeed.