Victor LaValle’s new novella bridges the weird and the ordinary, and reveals the ordinary to be all the more terrifying. LaValle employs the paranormal not to reject reality, but to open a portal into the experience of everyday social marginalization. What if, muses the book’s 20-year-old African American protagonist, “another world existed within—or alongside—the world he’d always known”? How strange would it be for others to not take his invisibility for granted? These questions—one classically surreal, the other depressingly quotidian—are as much for the reader as anyone else. Despite its supernatural elements, The Ballad of Black Tom is really a horror story about our world today. For LaValle, the greatest leap the imagination can make is to recognize what is already there, hidden in plain sight.
Author of the story collection Slapboxing with Jesus (1999) and three critically acclaimed novels, LaValle is known for playing with genre conventions. The Ecstatic (2002) was a madcap family romance propelled by the delusions of an obese Ivy League dropout. Big Machine (2009) mixed the supernatural and the hard-boiled in a narrative featuring an ex-junkie paranormal sleuth. The Devil in Silver (2012) followed patients in a mental ward as they fought off a monster with the head of a bison—think Nurse Ratched turned up a demonic notch. The last title earned LaValle praise from the novelist Gary Shteyngart, who hailed him as the “new master” of “literary horror.”
the stories justifying police brutality have themselves become a genre following familiar rules.
Unlike these earlier works, The Ballad of Black Tom is pitched as relatively straightforward genre fiction. It is published by the science fiction and fantasy imprint Tor, and is an explicit revision of a 1927 short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” by a genius of modern horror, H. P. Lovecraft. But LaValle writes in Lovecraft’s shadow precisely in order to mark where he steps out from under it. This double gesture is anything but straightforward. By doing it LaValle invites the reader to consider what horror looks like from actually existing marginalized perspectives. Lovecraft would not have entertained the possibility.
“The Horror at Red Hook” is a bitter complaint against what were then New York City’s newly arrived ethnic immigrants and Southern black migrants. Tor’s own website states that “approximately 60% of [the story’s] word count consists of purple, paranoid rants about New York and its inhabitants.” These judgments are overlaid with a bizarre mystery involving one Robert Suydam, master of the occult. Lovecraft’s protagonist, Detective Thomas F. Malone, tracks down Suydam to a series of buildings in Red Hook, Brooklyn. There he intuits that the area’s “old brick slums and dark foreign faces” are “the root of a contagion destined to sicken and swallow cities, and engulf nations in the foetor of hybrid pestilence.” Malone determines that Suydam derives his occult power from his alliance with these unruly hordes. But he also discovers an eminently practical basis for Suydam’s sorcery: running underneath the buildings are tunnels through which illegal immigrants are trafficked into the city.
LaValle dedicates The Ballad of Black Tom to Lovecraft “with all my conflicted feelings,” and works from within the horror genre to make those mixed feelings known. LaValle’s novella is set in 1924, amid the cultural ferment of Jazz Age New York. In the most notable departure from Lovecraft’s story, LaValle makes his protagonist a young black man. Charles Thomas Tester, or Tommy Tester, is a subpar musician and above-average grifter who lives with his father, Otis, in a modest apartment on West 144th Street. The Harlem Renaissance is playing out in the Testers’ backyard, yet the reader is barely aware of that because Tommy is not an artist but an instrument, a man willing to be what others want him to be. Lacking genuine talent, he performs “the dazzling, down-and-out musician” when it suits one of his cons or schemes. In fact he can only play a few drawn-out songs over and over again. When he does not have his guitar, Tommy is content to play the “Clueless Negro,” a role that “always worked on whites.” It matters little that these acts are soul deadening. “A good hustler only wants his pay” is his credo.
Tommy’s lack of a core identity leaves him dangerously exposed to Robert Suydam’s machinations. In LaValle’s story, Suydam pays Tommy an exorbitant fee to play music at an event he is hosting at his Flatbush mansion. Suydam has a taste for the debased, and in Tommy he thinks he has found someone who can perform the essence of blackness. “Your people,” he lectures, “are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It’s all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence.” Suydam means these to be compliments.
But Tommy proves to be a quick study. If Lovecraft presented Suydam as an extension of his followers, the spiritual outgrowth of a concrete pestilence, LaValle short-circuits any connection between Tommy and Suydam whatsoever. “You talking about Harlem?” Tommy interjects. Suydam’s dark vision is exposed to light. “I’m trying to understand what in the hell place you’re talking about. It doesn’t sound like anywhere I’ve ever lived.” Tommy takes the job, but his response indicates that what counts as horrific often lies in the eye of the beholder.
The turning point of LaValle’s novella comes when Detective Malone and his private-eye partner, Mr. Howard—who both have been tracking Tommy for some time—pay him a visit in Harlem but find his father home alone instead. Howard shoots Otis to death, claiming self-defense. But the rifle Howard thought Otis was holding turns out to be Tommy’s guitar.
As he struggles to come to terms with the profound injustice of his father’s death, Tommy enters a fugue state wherein everything he thought he knew about the world is turned on its head. He picks up his guitar and starts to play, only this time he does not “play for the money.” Instead, Tommy plays for himself—specifically, a tune Otis taught him just a few days earlier. It is, LaValle notes, “the first time in his life he ever played well.”
Tommy is not the same man afterward. He shows up to his paid gig in Flatbush and finds Suydam ready to cross over into the alternate dimension simply known as “Outside.” According to Suydam, the dark arts of this realm are powerful enough to bring about “the end of this current order, its civilization of subjugation.” Tommy is only supposed to provide the light entertainment at this event, but his newfound talent on the guitar actually allows him to stride Outside as if it were the most natural thing to do. In some sense, his grief has already put him there. The murder of his father, and his inability to obtain justice, have turned Tommy into Black Tom, master of the occult.
Although Tommy takes the place of Suydam in LaValle’s vision of hell, the reader—in a decidedly un-Lovecraftian move—actually empathizes with Black Tom. This is because an even greater horror pervades the novella: namely, that black lives do not matter. Indeed the most horrifying moment in this horror story—Howard’s cool-headed justification for shooting Otis—is all too realistic. “I felt in danger for my life,” Howard recounts, as if reading from a script. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.” Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, it has become routine—sickeningly so—to bear witness to police shootings of black men, unarmed or lawfully armed, only to then hear law enforcement’s justification for why they committed murder. In these narratives, any action, reaction, or even non-action by a black man warrants violent suppression by the police. In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle turns the very familiarity of these racist clichés into an indictment of how the stories justifying police brutality have themselves become a genre following familiar rules.
As soon as Tommy becomes Black Tom, possessed of the occult power to destroy the world, the novella switches to police officer Malone’s perspective. Lovecraft made Malone an authoritative point of view character. LaValle makes Malone unreliable, a man whose prejudices hinder his investigation and lead to his undoing. At one point, frustrated with pursuing leads in Red Hook, Malone wonders, “Why hadn’t he ever learned how to speak with these people?” Why indeed.
Malone’s biggest mistake is to underestimate Black Tom. Unable to conceive his quarry as anything but a “mere lieutenant” to Suydam, he enters into the final, implosive confrontation with little sense of how powerful the son of Otis Tester has become. No spoilers here. But suffice it to say that Black Tom, like the legendary guitarist Robert Johnson, said to have made a pact with the Devil so that he could play the blues, has learned how to sing, even if he pays for that skill with his soul.
For LaValle, the greatest leap the imagination can make is to recognize what is already there, hidden in plain sight.
Just before Malone is consigned to his fate, he faces Black Tom and calls him a “monster.” The response cuts like a knife: “I was made one.” For Malone, the utterance serves as a final judgment. The reader, however, hears a faint note of regret in these words, as if Tommy were bemoaning the violence that drew him Outside in the first place. It is a crucial reminder of the protagonist’s humanity at the very moment of his damnation.
In the end, Black Tom is a reluctant magician, distressed by what he has become. Otis “didn’t have much,” he remembers, “but he never lost his soul.” Is Black Tom not what everyone expects him to be, but what everyone needs him to be? If Black Tom did not exist, would he have to be invented? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Victor LaValle has opened up space to ask them.
The Ballad of Black Tom reads like an allegory of our present policing crisis. It presents the genre of justifying police brutality as a more ghastly invention than anything H. P. Lovecraft dreamt up. Black Tom enters the story to prevent the guilty parties from getting away with murder. But make no mistake: he is no avenging angel. Everyone is damned in the eyes of the “bloodstained guitar,” the only true witness to Otis’s murder. From the guitar’s perspective, Black Tom is just a messenger—a wake-up call to see the horror playing out in front of all of us.