Prejudice is the Real Monster

The Ballad of Black Tom

The work of American horror fiction luminary HP Lovecraft has had a chequered critical reputation at best. Although the early 20th century pioneer of ‘cosmic horror’ has always enjoyed a healthy fandom – at least posthumously – his developments on the American horror canon have often been mocked or downright beaten down for their knotted, baroque stylings and melodramatic voice. But the creator of the cephalopod deity Cthulhu and its bretheren has arguably proven himself to be more problematic for his aggressively racist views than he is for the gloriously rococo prose that makes up the bulk of his work (all in short fiction).

The Ballad of Black TomThough much has been written about Lovecraft’s unsettling racism – the internet has helped his literary resurgence but also given a platform for political discussion of his work – the novelist and short story writer Victor LaValle has found a unique way to ‘write back’ at the particularly unpleasant elements of Lovecraft’s life and work. Taking his cue from The Horror at Red Hook – and transporting both Malone and Suydam to suit his needs – LaValle pits an African-American protagonist into Lovecraft’s world.

Charles Thomas Hester – Tom to his friends – isn’t a particularly good jazz guitarist, but he still manages a decent hustle in 1920s Harlem, keeping racist hostility at bay and ensuring that life for him and his ageing father is relatively comfortable. But when he inadvertently delivers an occult tome to an eccentric old lady (well, most of it), he steps into a hustle that not even he can wrangle his way out of. Attracting the attention of both Suydam and Inspector Malone, Tom risks putting not just his own life in danger, but that of his father too. With a confident grip of the Jazz Age vernacular whose milieu it plunders, LaValle immediately plunges us into a world that is both familiar and new to fans of the original Lovecraft story. The problems are there, but there’s also a sense of community and togetherness.

Establishing a solid enough groundwork of social realism, LaValle proceeds to unleash the Lovecraftian tropes with gusto. Our sympathies are calibrated towards the put-upon Tom, and when he suffers a particularly bad turn, you just know his comeuppance will not be pleasant. Perhaps the most poignant – and heartbreaking – aspect of LaValle’s novella is how no amount of eldritch monsters from the deep can match the pain piled on a black man in 1920s America.