Hugo Reading 2017: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle

The second novella I read was The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor Lavalle. This story is dedicated ‘For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings’. I haven’t read any Lovecraft, so the only things I know about him are 1. Horror; 2. Cthulu; 3. Racism. All of which, needless to say, I know only at second hand.

It turns out that this was not sufficient preparation for this story. For someone who is not expecting Lovecraft, or familiar with his tropes, the story seems to be a very noirish sort of tale, set in 1920s New York, centering around Charles Thomas Tester, who is black, a terrible musician, a reasonably astute con-man, and an occasional purveyor of magical artefacts. He is rather collected by an older, white occultist, called Robert Suydam, who is trying to summon some sort of sleeping king by using magic learned from the various immigrant populations of New York. Then his father is murdered by police in ‘self defense’, when they mistake his guitar for a gun, and he goes all in to the occult / revenge plot.

Honestly, this wasn’t my thing, and I felt as though it didn’t quite make sense. Which I mentioned to my husband, who quickly recognised the names Suydam and Malone and realised that the whole thing was kind of a pastiche / response to Lovecraft’s famously racist tale The Horror at Red Hook. And so I went away and read a couple of synopses and essays about Red Hook, and bingo! The story suddenly works a lot better. But I’m not sure that the mark of a good story is that it requires further reading to make sense? I am reluctant to say this, because I like playing with pastiche, too. And the story sort of worked without knowing any of that, but I feel as though knowing the original story would have brought this to life a lot more – just reading synopses made me realise that there were particular scenes being referred back to in clever ways.

I do think the racism – the constant, draining, everyday weight of it – was brought out very well in this story. And I like the fact that even the decent detective, the one who is not being gratuitously awful on every occasion, still participates in making the murder of Tommy’s father ‘legal’. And that the greatest fear at the end of the book, the one that is so great that it can’t even be permitted to be a memory, is that a Black man could have defeated so many white cops, armed only with a razor. I also note that the really nasty, racist private detective, the one who murders Tommy’s father, goes by the name of Mr Howard…

In conclusion, I’d say that The Ballad of Black Tom is well written, and not a bad story, if decidedly not my cup of tea, and probably very clever. I’ve seen reviews calling it a brilliant retort to Lovecraft, and it probably is. But since I don’t really know what it is retorting to, I can’t see it landing high on my ballot.

OK, I think that will do me for now.  I desperately need to read something which I don’t have to think critically about!  I shall return to these reviews in a few days.

Oh, and speaking of reviews, I have another one up at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  I finally managed to draw a RITA nominee that I actually liked!  And in the Romantic Suspense category, of all places…

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