I learned of this book back when Naz at Read Diverse Books hosted a Diverse SFF readalong for it. I was unable to participate in the readalong at the time and wasn’t sure if the novella was one I really wanted to read, but when I saw it in Barnes & Noble back in December, I picked it up recalling Naz’s review of it and started reading it on my way home. I was surprised that I was immediately hooked on the story.
People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break? (Goodreads)
The Ballad of Black Tom is a horror novella set in New York City (mostly Harlem) in the early 1920s. It retells H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” from the perspective of a Black man.
I’m not familiar with the Lovecraft story this novella responds to. I’ve never read it and have only read a few summaries of it because this novella made me curious. From what I’ve learned, Lovecraft’s short story is very racist and xenophobic and will probably piss me off if I should ever read it since I am Black and an immigrant. At this time, I have no intention of reading it, though I agree with Naz, who stated in his review that it would benefit readers to read Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” to fully understand The Ballad of Black Tom.
However, doing so is not necessary. Without reading Lovecraft’s story, one might miss certain references made in The Ballad of Black Tom and how exactly LaValle is responding to it, but it won’t detract from your enjoyment and appreciation of LaValle’s story. I didn’t read Lovecraft’s story, but I enjoyed reading The Ballad of Black Tom and was hooked. At about 150 pages, my strong interest in the story could have made this a quick read, maybe even a story that could have been completed in one sitting, but I read it the week leading up to Christmas so, being busy, I completed the novella in 4 days; but I read it every chance I got.
There are many references in the story that I know I failed to notice or noticed but did not fully understand what they allude to, such as the Supreme Alphabet, which I did not know was an actual thing until I googled it before starting on this review. My failure to pick up on these allusions wasn’t off-putting to me, but instead made me list this as a book to reread later. Hopefully by then I’ll know and can understand more.
I like the observation the narrator makes of New York City in the opening paragraph. It caught and held my attention because it’s true. Many who move to NYC fail to see what/how the city is because they are blinded by what they hope it to be, by the illusion of the city. With this allusion to NYC’s illusion, LaValle introduces us to the protagonist, Charles Thomas Tester, a Black man who lives in Harlem in the early 1920s and hustles, sometimes with White folks, to get by. Illusion is his survival tactic and he is a master at it.
“Becoming unremarkable, invisible, compliant – these were useful tricks for a black man in an all-white neighborhood. Survival techniques.”
Through Tester, we see how unfairly Black people were treated back in the 1920s, which makes us modern readers realize (if we haven’t already) that nothing has changed. I was most interested in Tester’s development throughout the story and how his experiences caused him to make an unexpected decision that brought about a drastic change that left a cop shivering in his boots, fearful of the Black man who can traverse the Outside.
The fantastical aspect of the story is entertaining and is what I mostly paid attention to while reading, however the horror in it was quite scary, and I’m not talking about what Tester did in the basement, which I admit was unsettling and fits the traditional horror/thriller mold. The injustices enacted upon Tester and his father by the authorities was scary because their skin color and economic situation made Tester powerless to fight back. What’s even more alarming is that that shit is still happening today.
It’s a good read and a quick read and I recommend it to those who want to read horror that isn’t terrifying and those who’ve read Lovecraft’s work.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I think it’s worth a purchase. It entertains yet provides commentary on how minorities and immigrants are regarded and treated back in the 1920s and today.
Quotes from the book:
“Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.”