Book Review: The Ballad of Tom Black
“I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day”Tommy Tester
I’ve been seeing Victor Lavalle’s books praised all over the internet for the last couple months, and I finally bit the budget bullet and bought one. All of his stuff sounds great, and the covers are all gorgeous. But because of my love of the Lovecraft mythos, and my desire for more quick reads in the form of novellas, I decided on The Ballad of Tom Black as my first from Lavalle.
SUMMARY: 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?
Let me begin by saying I really enjoyed this book! So much so that I took it to the pool and couldn’t leave until I finished it. I skipped lunch for this book. I got sunburn for this book. Needless to say it held a powerful magic over me.
Part of this is because of the writing style. Lavalle glides you with seemingly effortless grace through the various boroughs, events, and perspectives of the story. The imagery, the characterization, the dialogue – everything works in perfect harmony. The beauty is subtle, no large flourishes or needlessly elevated prose (something Lovecraft himself could have learned from), but it is always present, every scene enticing you and inviting you to read the next. Time seemed to stand still and rush by simultaneously. I guess what I’m really trying to say is the prose is great and it is an easy read!
The other power of the book comes from the story itself. I thought it was really cool how the book is almost split in half, switching narrative perspectives almost exactly halfway through. The first half focuses on Tommy Tester, a black man hustling to support himself and his father but who seems to deal with less than common wares and patrons. It’s his skill and experience with otherworldly items that attracts the attention of the enigmatic Robert Suydam, which in turn attracts the attention of Detective Malone and sets off a chain of disastrous events. Then the book switches perspectives and the rest of the story is told from Malone’s point of view. At first I was a little perturbed because I really liked Tommy as a character, but then the more I read I realized the benefit and power of seeing the second half from Malone (who is somewhat of an outsider to the magical happenings).
There are a couple of things that kept this from earning a perfect score from me. Some of the scenes were a little confusing to understand what was happening, and I couldn’t quite square some of the characters’ decisions. The pacing also seemed a little odd and jumpy in some parts. The eldritch horrors that I’ve come to love are present, but they’re more subtle than I would have liked (although this also gives them a certain ability to put you on the edge of your seat when they do appear). But honestly I’ve never read Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” (the story that Lavalle is putting his spin on here), so I wonder how much of my issues are due to the author trying to stick to the source material. Guess I should read the other one and find out!
Overall this is a fantastic little read and I highly recommend it! By having a strong black lead, Lavalle works to undo, or perhaps rebut, the racist and xenophobic proclivities of Lovecraft’s original stories (as well as just offer more reasons to read black horror authors!). I think it really works here, and I appreciate this re-imagining so much! Go read this book!