THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle – Review

I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle – ReviewThe Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Published by Tor.com on February 16 2016
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 152
Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads
three-half-stars

The nitty-gritty: A short but powerful twist on the Lovecraftian tale, a story that didn’t quite work for me, but overall an interesting, clever and atmospheric tale.

Mystery lingered in the air like the scent of a scorched book.

It wasn’t until I had finished reading The Ballad of Black Tom that I found out it was based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story called The Horror at Red Hook and that several of the characters have the same names. This would have been more interesting to me had I actually read Lovecraft’s story first, but I did enjoy going back afterwards and looking up the details (thank God for Wikipedia!). What’s much more interesting about LaValle’s take on it is that he’s turned Lovecraft’s famous xenophobia on its head and written a story about one man’s experiences with racism in 1920s New York City. I mean, think about it: an African-American author, writing a story that deals with racism, based on a story by a famous racist. It sounds crazy, but LaValle pulls it off, although I have to say I was more interested in the mechanics of what he was trying to do, rather than the story itself, which to me lacked cohesion. The Lovecraft elements are subtle, and unless you’re familiar with the story it’s based upon, you may not notice them at all until the end.

What did scream “Lovecraft” to me, however, was the unsettling feeling that runs throughout the story. It was hard to put my finger on what made me so uncomfortable, and yet, the entire time I was reading I felt a strange sense of unease. LaValle’s blend of a dark magic lurking just below the surface of the story, with some very real and upsetting acts of racism, made this an odd and dreamlike reading experience.

The story is told in two sections, the first one from Tommy Tester’s point of view, a man who makes a living as a messenger delivering magical objects to various parts of the city.  The second half is told from the perspective of a white cop named Malone, and picks up right after a shocking act of violence.  A man named Robert Suydam features in both sections of the story, a sorcerer who can bend reality and create doors to another world. Both Tommy and Malone interact with him, but it’s Tommy that uses Suydam’s arcane knowledge to finally escape his life in Harlem. If my story description seems vague, it’s because it’s hard to grasp exactly what The Ballad of Black Tom is actually about. Many of the characters’ actions seem random and disconnected from each other. At the half way point when the story switches to Malone’s point of view, I lost the flow of the story, and it was hard to stay focused.

What I did love about this story, however, was the emotional impact I felt while reading it. Tommy’s relationship with his father Otis was wonderful. Otis has experienced racial injustice first hand, and he carries a straight razor on a chain around his neck to remind himself what a dangerous world it is for a black man. When he finds out that Tommy is venturing out of Harlem, he gives him the razor for protection.

LaValle’s subtle hints of danger, both real and supernatural, gave this story an odd feeling of menace. Shadows of unimaginable creatures appear behind people. Black holes open up out of nowhere to swallow people whole. These moments were creepy, but an unexpected act of violence was the most shocking part of the story, especially as it’s told with very little emotion.

So while the actual story didn’t blow me away, I can appreciate what LaValle was trying to accomplish. I think I would recommend reading the source material first, if you have the chance, but otherwise, this is a beautifully written story that combines the horrors of racism with the supernatural in a completely unexpected way.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

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Posted February 22, 2016 by Tammy in 3 1/2 stars, Reviews / 14 Comments

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14 responses to “THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle – Review

    • Tammy

      I agree, the cover is really cool. I especially love the subtle tentacles creeping toward him!

    • Tammy

      I have to admit I’m not the biggest Lovecraft fan either, although I’ve read some really good Lovecraft inspired fiction (Harrison Squared, for example!)

    • Tammy

      I definitely want to go back and read The Horror at Red Hook, because I’m very curious to see what the similarities are:-)

    • Tammy

      Reflecting back, I almost wish I had time to re-read it. I feel like I missed something.

  1. Becca Owen

    I’ve never read Lovecraft or The Ballad of Black Tom, but I just may have to! I pretty much like anything that falls under adult fiction or fantasy (dark fantasy mostly). One of my good friends is raving about a book called “Lucifer’s Son” by Sergey Mavrodi, http://www.mavrodisergey.com/. She said that it falls under the adult fiction/dark fantasy/horror genres, but she said that it’s really good. I appreciate the review, I take any suggestions I can get when it comes to a new book to read!