Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle


Victor LaValle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a novella that I’ve been hearing quite a lot about. Most of the praise has come from people I trust in the community so I figured it was high time I investigated to see what all the fuss was about.

“The Horror at Red Hook” is perhaps one of Lovecraft’s more infamous short stories in the sense that it had racist overtones, stemming from his dislike of living in Brooklyn for a time and the contempt that he felt over the number of immigrants in the area. This story is a little different for H.P. in the way that it is set completely in an urban area.

Victor LaValle has taken the idea from “The Horror at Red Hook” and transformed it into a brilliant novella that features some of the characters from the original story along with Charles Thomas Tester – a black musician who assists in the unearthing of a pathway to the other side where “The Sleeping King” lurks. Tester (Black Tom) is a superb character, a down-to-Earth man trying to do right by his father and keep a roof over their heads. He is a competent musician that comes across an opportunity to earn some fast cash. And although Tester has his doubts, he can ill afford to pass it up.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” is beautifully written. The setting of 1920s New York provides a superb backdrop and although this book is only relatively short, I had a real sense of what life was like during this time. The culture and feel is portrayed perfectly as Tester becomes involved in a shadowy quest to bring upon the end of mankind by awakening the Sleeping King! The novella is split up into two parts with the first half focusing on Tester and then a character shift to detective Malone (A character from Lovecraft’s original tale). The stories intertwine brilliantly and as the dread begins to build you can feel the darkness begin to close in around you. For me, Lovecraftian horror is all about the suggestive horrors that lurk in and beyond the shadows, a sort of show, don’t tell approach to storytelling. LaValle does a great job with this as well as creating some vivid and unsettling scenes of gore and horror.

All manner of terrors await should you decide to pick up this outstanding novella. Madness, destruction, blood and fear; it’s all here in abundance for those brave enough to venture into these pages.

LaValle has brought to life a tired old story by injecting some of his own personality into it, delivering a superb tale of Lovecraftian horror set in 1920s New York. You can probably guess that I am very impressed.

You can buy a copy of this excellent novella from here.

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