REVIEW: A Fantastic Novel of a Black Hustler in 1920's Harlem

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Tor                      152 pp.           $12.99

By Zack Graham

The distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction has blurred over the last few years.  “Genre” writers like Neil Gaiman, Jeff VanderMeer, and Brian Evenson have won the respect of the literary establishment, while “literary” writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Chang-rae Lee and Emily St. John Mandel have fused their fiction with themes and styles from earlier masters of the speculative form.

With his new book, The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle has brilliantly bridged this divide.  Black Tom is LaValle’s fifth book, and follows two critically successful novels, Big Machine and The Devil in Silver, both edited by Chris Jackson at Spiegel and Grau and enriched by otherworldly phenomena. 

Running a brisk 150 pages, The Ballad of Black Tom is published by speculative publisher Tor Books and edited by Ellen Datlow, who has edited science fiction, fantasy, and horror for more than three decades.  The novel tells the story of Tommy Tester, a hustler living in 1920s Harlem who makes ends meet by dealing in shadowy, occult-related artifacts. 

Tester is approached by a rich white man named Robert Suydam, who offers to pay Tester an exorbitant amount of money to play guitar at his party, and becomes ensnared in a supernatural mystery that leads him to the edge of reality. From this precipice, Tester reinvents himself as Black Tom, an omnipotent sorcerer who exacts revenge against those (Caucasians) who have murdered his father and discriminated against him his entire life.

The Ballad of Black Tom is LaValle’s homage to H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most significant horror writers of the 20th Century.  LaValle dedicates the novel to Lovecraft, yet in the dedication he makes clear that he does so with “conflicted feelings,” a reference to his disdain for Lovecraft’s racist worldview.  Lovecraft often focused his fictions on dark energies or horrors symbolizing fear, and his fear of the “other” is a common recurrence in both his fictions and other writings (see, for example, his poem “On The Creation of Niggers” for more on that).  LaValle’s take on Lovecraft proves to be a tightly woven, mind-bending journey into a rich world that Lovecraft’s bigotry prevented him from creating. 

With The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle re-appropriates Lovecraftian horror to convey the pain of the black experience in America.  In shifting the source of cosmic terror from bigoted misanthropy to racial injustice, LaValle relocates a nihilistic phenomenon inside a sociopolitical trauma that has recently gripped American society. 

Tommy Tester gravitates toward dark magic to seek racially motivated vengeance, and finds that this energy, though frighteningly evil, gives him more power than a black man in the early 20th century could have ever had.  This brilliant inversion of Lovecraftian horror is the primary way in which Black Tom succeeds in being an excellent novel as well as an excellent horror novel.

LaValle’s prose shines when he enters the world of the truly fantastic.  His equally evocative descriptions of emotions and supernatural phenomena illustrate just how surreal real life experiences can be.  LaValle’s description of Tommy’s reaction to his father’s murder, for example: “Inwardly he felt the sun close its distance from the earth; it came near enough to melt the great majority of Tommy’s internal organs.  A fire ran through his body…”

This description comes shortly after a scene in Suydam’s mansion: “the windowpanes took on the color, and apparent depth, of the sea.  It was as if Tommy Tester and Robert Suydam, standing in this room, in this mansion, in the city, were also peering down at distant waters elsewhere on the globe.”  Though Black Tom does have moments of cliché (“mystery lingered in the air like the scent of the scorched book”), these moments are few and far between.  The vast majority of LaValle’s prose is as powerful as it is imaginative.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a gorgeous Mobius strip of a novel that uses magic, horror, and history to create a lens through which the injustices of the modern day are alarmingly evident.  In completely departing from “literary” fiction, Victor LaValle has shown us just how resonant “genre” fiction can be.

Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in The National Book ReviewEnglish Kills ReviewThe Review Review, and elsewhere. He is at work on a collection of short fiction and a novel.