Racism, Black Magic & Transformation: Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom

[Contains some spoilers.]

For all his influence on weird fiction, his insinuation into pop culture and his insemination of so much fictional homage (of varying degrees of quality), it’s fairly well known by now that HP Lovecraft was also a racist piece of shit, an unfortunate quality that also shines through in much of his fiction. This is apparent not just in his portrayal of squirming, unspeakable monsters, but pretty much any description of non-Aryan characters, although ‘characters’ might be overstating it. Rancorous descriptions abound of the “hatefully negroid”, “unclassified slant-eyed folk”, and the “blackest and most vicious criminals”, and all this in just one story.

Here’s the thing though: most people remotely familiar with old HP’s work have digested these vile attributes as part of his problematic legacy, either disavowing him entirely or at least acknowledging the inherent problems with the man and his work; the only arseholes who don’t accept it are probably the same kind of people who are still saying, “Yeah, but her emails…”

Personally, Lovecraft will always be one of my major early influences, but both as a writer and a reader it’s essential to evolve, not only in general, but particularly in cases like this, lest one be caught up in Cthulhu’s white supremacist tentacles for untold aeons. That’s not to say that you can’t – or that I don’t – still enjoy a bit of Nyarlathotep or Shub-Niggurath goodness, because you can – and I do – but ignoring or excusing Lovecraft’s attitudes as a natural product of its time is not only lazy, but implicitly racist in its own way too. Recognising and calling out someone’s bigotry, no matter how long dead he is, doesn’t entirely negate an appreciation of the guy’s work or deny the scope of his influence on an entire genre, but it does acknowledge the issue with blindly idolising a writer whose racism wasn’t the only problem with his fiction.

Either way, contemporary weird literature has an obligation to move past and subvert the distasteful elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, at the very least. That there’s still so much Lovecraft-inspired fiction being produced really gives writers the opportunity to actively address HP’s bigotry, to tackle it head-on and present a Mythos story from the point of view of one of those minorities previously relegated to a “babel of sound and filth”. Which is exactly what Victor LaValle has done with The Ballad of Black Tom, essentially a remake of one of Lovecraft’s more racially inflamed stories, “The Horror at Red Hook”.

The original story deals with the occult underbelly of, you guessed it, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and the involvement of the “queer, corpulent” recluse Robert Suydam in kidnappings, illegal immigration and clandestine rituals. It’s not exactly HP’s strongest work, and is dragged down to the point of ruin by its flagrant racism and stereotyping, but there are a few great moments in “Red Hook”, particularly the lurid, teeming descriptions of “night crypts [and] titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” Really though, this is limited to a handful of fleeting scenes; even discounting the racism, the story is messy and more than a little dull.

For The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle seems to take the parts he likes, omitting entirely the weird tangential wedding from HP’s original. His version of the story focuses on black Harlem resident and not-very-good musician, Charles Thomas Tester as he gets caught up in the occult. Although it’s not necessary to have read Lovecraft’s story prior to this, LaValle interweaves characters and elements from the original to the extent that some knowledge of “The Horror at Red Hook” would benefit the reader, if only to be able to say “Oh, that’s cool, I see what he did there.”

The importance of LaValle’s novella cannot be understated, not just in terms of its response to the problematic ways of Lovecraft and his fiction, but especially in today’s climate of inclement ignorance and racial hatred. This is a great book in that it’s not simply playful or original in its subversion of Lovecraft’s fiction and philosophy, but that it digs deep. There are layers here waiting to be unpeeled, not the least of which is an excellent, subtle commentary on Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentist philosophy. Tester notes at one point that a “fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve”, which is a great way of examining the implications of the author’s supposed indifference relative to his racist views. This also brings to light Lovecraft’s often deliberately flimsy characterisation; with Tester, we get not only an interesting and unique character, but through him and the context of his race and circumstances, an empathetic one. The dynamic LaValle creates in rewriting a Lovecraftian story with a black character gives the mythos a fresh coat of paint with his different perspective and experience of the world, but it’s also infinitely more engaging in that we’re following a real, three-dimensional person rather than a character designed to simply convey the plot. Gone is the passive observer. Tester’s treatment – and subsequently the treatment of black people in general at that particular time and place – moves the reader far more than the realisation of humanity’s insignificance, a realisation that by this point isn’t all that groundbreaking. After all, “what was indifference compared to malice?”

Everything I’m saying here probably makes it sound a lot heavier than it actually is. Black Tom does tackle some serious issues, but LaValle is never heavy-handed in his execution. That he’s managed to wrap his poignant and subversive commentary on Lovecraft’s racism in a work of fiction that’s thrilling and electric and just plain fun is an enormous feat.

Where Black Tom falls flat for me, however, is in its inclusion of Lovecraft’s titular Mythos deity, Cthulhu. The original story had no overt connection to the tentacled beastie, nor any other of his squirming brethren, although its use of cults and monsters and eldritch dimensions still places it firmly within that universe. What I liked about “Red Hook” was the ambiguity and relative freshness of some of its horrors, particularly the “naked phosphorescent thing” that emerges from an otherworldly lake towards story’s end. Unfortunately this is one of the elements that LaValle decided to cut, replacing it with the more recognisable Cthulhu, which in some ways seems like a bit of a safer route, and ultimately a less engaging one.

About halfway through, the narrative switches from looking over Tester’s shoulder, to the detective Malone’s, Lovecraft’s equivalent of a mostly useless protagonist in the original. Although this tactic adds to the suspense and mystery regarding Tester’s actions and motivations, it definitely feels like the weaker section of the narrative after the tour de force of Tester’s opening. LaValle does explore the matter-of-fact racism expressed by Malone and company, but aside from his sensitivity to the supernatural, Malone is cardboard compared to Tester.

These flaws aren’t deal-breakers though, and in the end The Ballad of Black Tom is an engaging, original work that does the genre a service in its subversion of the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. It marks an important milestone in Lovecraft’s contentious legacy, and it’s a bloody great read, too.

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