Review: The Ballad of Black Tom – Hugo 2017 Novella

I don’t know whether it is worth making a distinction between ‘Lovecraftian’ as an adjective to describe stories or ‘Cthulhu-Mythos’ as a category to put stories in. I can see a distinction, in that H.P.Lovecraft had a particular writing style and his fiction writing was not entirely within that brand of horror-with-cosmic elements. Writers can borrow from the Great Old Ones backstory that Lovecraft originated but adopt quite different styles of writing and plot. Charles Stross’s early Laundry novels contain Lovecraft elements but are framed as pastiches of spy novels and parodies of modern management culture. Nick Mamatas’s novel Move Underground adopted a Cthulhu-based horror for a story about Jack Kerouac and Beat culture.

The Ballad of Black Tom has elements of both. It isn’t a pastiche of Lovecraft or an attempt to capture they style or plot conventions of a Lovecraft story. It does specifically name-check Cthulhu and includes characters and events from Lovecraft’s particularly xenophobic story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hrh.aspx . However, it is also ‘Lovecraftian’ in the sense of presenting a perspective on Lovecraft’s stories. The difference being is that it provides a perspective that Lovecraft himself would be incapable of.

Charles Thomas Tester is a young black man from Harlem in the 1920s, who makes his living trading in sinister merchandise. When we first meet him he is on an errand to deliver a particularly Lovecraftian artefact – a forbidden book containing an eldritch alphabet. His journey from Harlem to Queens involves him navigating the tense racial politics of early Twentieth century New York. Stepping beyond Harlem marks him as a person out of place and somebody to be viewed with suspicion. This first encounter leads in turn to two others. First with the wealthy eccentric Robert Suydam and then with two detectives apparently watching Suydam – the thuggish private dick Howard and the more thoughtful NYPD Detective Malone.

Tester finds himself drawn into the plot of what is a kind of prequel to Lovecraft’s ‘Horror at Red Hook’ but Tester has a viewpoint and motives unlike those of either Suydam or Malone. In the Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft casts the various followers and cultists of Cthulhu as various indigenous peoples and given no more motive for attempting to bring about the end of all things than ignorance or weak-mindedness. The Ballad of Black Tom considers a different motive – that people marginalised, shut out, persecuted or systematically alienated from society might consider the end of all things as a reasonable alternative to continued persecution.

The first half of the story follows Tester up to the point of a gathering at Suydam’s house. The second half follows Malone and begins to parallel more events mentioned within Lovecraft’s ‘Horror at Red Hook’. Connecting the two are events that explain why Charles Thomas Tester may choose to become the more supernatural figure of ‘Black Tom’.

Victor LaValle has found an interesting way to engage with Lovecraft’s writing both in terms of its pop-cultural influence but also in terms of how Lovecraft’s racist fears informed and shaped them.

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14 comments

  1. Lurkertype

    This is another one I wanted to like more than I did. Loved the first half, but then maybe 2/3 through I just… didn’t.

    The descriptions of the surroundings are really, really well done, though. Vivid sense of place and time.

    I do like the one-two punch of this and “Vellit Boe” — seeing perspectives in the work that I hope are causing HPL to turn over in his grave. “Huzzah, I am still read and my work built upon… oh no, by women and negroes!”

    Also, since Brooklyn is now thoroughly infested with hipsters, the thought of it being full of nameless eldritch poor and swarthy hordes amuses me. “Ia, ia, artisanal fthagn!”

    Like

    • Space Oddity

      I suspect he’d be cooler with it than people imagine.

      Then again all the focus on Lovecraft instead of say, Campbell, a racist who did real damage to the field with his biases from a position of power and security sits wrong with me. “Huzzah! Another shovel of shit on the damaged New England neurotic who died broke, of stomach cancer!”

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      • camestrosfelapton

        The difference is that people genuinely like Lovecraft’s sf-horror concepts. They are goldmine that isn’t mined out and writers are doing interesting things with them.
        The Ballad of Black Tom doesn’t shovel shit on HPL – it’s a genuinely good cosmic horror story. But it doesn’t ignore the problems of HPL’s work either.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lurkertype

        Nobody gives a crap about what Campbell wrote, is the difference.

        HPL had a lot of really interesting concepts in his worlds and people enjoy exploring them, minus his neurotic biases. Basically, everyone’s still writing HPL fanfic; nobody’s writing Campbell fanfic except maybe for “The Thing”, and there’s not many of those.

        HPL’s Mythos: still and always in style and well-known. Even mundanes know Cthulhu. (<– he's in my spell-check!)
        Campbell's: unknown today except for "The Thing", no longer in style, and everyone hates and rags on the stupid ending he forced "The Cold Equations" to have.

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      • Space Oddity

        To make it clear, I’m not talking about the story–I consider literary deconstruction of Lovecraft’s work valid and indeed, necessary. More the endless repetition of the same jokes that show up every damn time he gets mentioned.

        As for Campbell–he’s more important than people want to admit, and infinitely nastier. But really, that’s another discussion…

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  2. Andrew M

    I had two thoughts about this story. One is, has anyone noticed its similarity to The Three Body Problem? But I think LaValle does it better.

    The other was that, like Lurkertype, I felt it fell off towards the end, and it seemed to me that the later part wasn’t really needed: fb sne nf V pbhyq frr gur fgbel jnf rssrpgviryl pbzcyrgr ng gur raq bs cneg V, jura Gbz bcraf gur qbbe; gung’f rabhtu gb rafher gur erfhyg ur gnyxf nobhg va gur ynfg puncgre. I did wonder if the second half – including the move to Red Hook – had to be added to bring the story into a closer relationship with Lovecraft.

    Liked by 1 person

    • camestrosfelapton

      //One is, has anyone noticed its similarity to The Three Body Problem? //

      I hadn’t until you said it but yes.

      // I did wonder if the second half – including the move to Red Hook – had to be added to bring the story into a closer relationship with Lovecraft.//

      I don’t know but I assumed LaValle started with the idea for the second half and worked backwards. i.e. taking The Horror at Red Hook and assuming Malone is lying about what he found. Specifically gung gur crefba va cbffrffvba bs gur ryqevgpu yber naq ehaavat guvatf vf n jbexvat pynff oynpx zna engure guna na hccre-pynff juvgr zna, naq gung gur crefba vfa’g fbzr zragnyyl rafynirq zvavba ohg vf znxvat na npgvir qrpvfvba sbe haqrefgnaqnoyr ernfbaf.

      [hmmm Cthulhu in rot13 is Pguhyuh, which just looks like a different way of trying to pronounce it]

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      • Lurkertype

        Is Pguhyuh the good twin? Or another evil one?

        I see your point, Cam, but I’m with Andrew M. The last part seemed unnecessary and muddled and tacked on. And a smidge too on the nose, even though I sympathize with the point.

        3BP hadn’t crossed my mind. This is shorter and less infodumpy.

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  3. KR

    When I hear Black Tom, my mind immediately goes to the Black Tom incident, which was an act of German sabotage on US soil in WWI, sort of a piece with all their other espionage things like the Zimmermann telegram etc. It wasn’t known at first who or what caused the explosion, but it sparked a lot of wartime panic and scapegoating of various immigrant groups. It’s not completely unlike what happened after the explosion of the USS Maine in Cuba in 1898 when the yellow press ran with wild speculations and drew the US into a war with Spain. Not sure if it has any implications for the story, but I have to assume that the author at least googled “Black Tom” while writing to see if any connotations came up if he was not already aware of the incident.

    The pairing of “black” and “Tom” also conjures up many other cultural allusions from the literate subconscious: Uncle Tom’s cabin, Tom Sawyer etc. Or maybe that’s just in my scattered mind.

    Liked by 2 people

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