Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

‘ “I bear a hell within me,’ Black Tom growled. “And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the tress, spread havoc and desctruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”
“You’re a monster, then,” he said
“I was made one.” ‘

*****Trigger warnings: Racism, gore, death of a parent, torture, the occult, police brutality and body horror*****

So here’s the thing, I have a very strange relationship with H.P Lovecraft. I have not read any of his stories since I was about 18 and that was nearly a decade ago. At the time, I had never read anything with eldritch beings or monsters before so this was the first thing I had ever read and the problematic elements definitely slipped by me. I do like the newer retellings and adaptations like The Colour Out of Space (Nicolas Cage) and recently started playing the Call of Cthulu on my Switch. I had no idea going into this total mood read of a novella though, that it was a retelling. Or possibly the best one I read yet.

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?

If you’re going to read this, I would go into this blind like I did. I had no expectations of either LaValle’s writing or the content of the story, especially it being a Lovecraft retelling from a person of colour. That just made everything even better. This is a story that is both horrifying for the real world reasons of racism, the police system in America and the way we treat people from marginalized communities in society. It also has an eldritch god lurking around the corner, creepy AF magic and some weird mans library that can travel through dimension.

The world building is unfortunately very realistic for 1920’s America. We follow Charles “Tommy” Tester as he hustles to keep himself and his father alive. He experiences racism on the daily, is harassed by cops, train conductors, people who literally see him through their window. Tommy’s father is a widower who is permanently disabled as a result of the work he has done in the construction industry and what really warmed my cold dead heart was watching Tommy take care of his dad through everything.

One nice part of the world building I enjoyed was Tommy is already aware of the occult and the dangers of it existing. I enjoyed this because is such a short work, if a lot of time was spent to bring the main character on board with the very existence of magic and old Gods then it can take away from room that could be spent on developing the character and the story. Clearly LaVelle knew what he was doing with getting this over with and really pushed ahead with giving us a fantastic story.

Now like the trigger warnings at the start advise, this is a horror story. There is a lot of body horror, details of bodily harm for the various rituals carried out and just a whole bunch of stuff you would expect from a cosmic horror story. The second half is told from the perspective of a detective who has been following and harassing Tester and that’s the part the real graphic details kick in.

I really can’t talk about too much without giving away large chunks of spoilers but this is a wonderful story that totally took me by surprise and has me looking for spaces in my TBR where I might fit LaVelle’s other books in. I will say I knocked out a .5 of a star just for the ending being a little too long winded but that is the most minimal criticism I can come up with.

This is definitely a great October read. Also you don’t need to read the original Lovecraft story to enjoy this or appreciate it if you don’t want to, despite what Goodreads people say. This is far better a choice and is by an author who understands the issues with Lovecraft best of all and manages to do this as a response that just smashes it out of the park. Thanks for checking in guys! Happy reading!

★★★★.5 /5

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