The Ballad of Black Tom

Victor LaValle
The Ballad of Black Tom Cover

The Ballad of Black Tom


The Ballad of Black Tom is Victor LaValle's re-imagining of the events depicted in Lovecraft's short story, 'The Horror at Red Hook'. LaValle brings in some new characters, notably Tommy Tester, a young, black bluesman who shares an apartment in Red Hook with his father. When the story opens, Tommy is mixed up in the illegal ferrying of rare books, specifically books of an occult nature. His meeting with the mysterious Ma Att, a buyer of such books, foreshadows the strange and dangerous path Tommy's life will follow from here.

"In the darkness of the house, something enormous rose, then swayed like the tail of a venomous snake. But Ma Att--the face she showed them--only smiled." (p.77)

Tommy Tester is a strong lead character and makes a good focalizer for the story. We see 1920s Harlem through his eyes and experience the harassment he undergoes at the hands of the police and some of the locals. As well as facing the daily struggle of making enough to get by, Tommy has to deal with the racial prejudices of the time, carefully controlling himself when all he wants to do is lash out. LaValle's writing makes you feel this frustration, building up the tension which will lead to the appearance of the titular Black Tom.

Two characters from Lovecraft's original "Red Hook" story play major roles in The Ballad of Black Tom: Robert Suydam and Malone. Robert Suydam is a wealthy white man who is deeply interested in the occult. He employs Tommy to play at his house during a party; a party which the bluesman will never forget. Malone is a detective who has been investigating some complaints made about Suydam. He meets Tommy by chance, and will go on to play a devastating role in Tester's life.

"Mankind didn't make messes; mankind was the mess." (p.68)

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