Victor LaValle dedicates his 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom to “H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”
LaValle has made no secret of Lovecraft’s influence on his writing; indeed, it would be difficult to find anyone working in the horror genre in the second half of the 20th century or the first decades of the 21st who has not been similarly affected, even if only subconsciously. Lovecraft’s importance is difficult to overstate: he pretty much created a whole subgenre that has come to be known as cosmic horror or eldritch horror. Numerous stories he authored – “The Lurking Fear,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Herbert West – Reanimator,” “The Colour Out of Space,” ”The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “At the Mountains of Madness” – are considered classics, known and read even by those outside of the horror community. The giants of contemporary horror fiction, including Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Ramsey Campbell, claim Lovecraft as a literary ancestor and progenitor.
Dismissed early on as a hack who published in pulp magazines, Lovecraft’s reputation grew steadily after his death to the point that he is now considered a canonical American author. S.T. Joshi writes, “While most pulp fiction has rightly been condemned as being hackneyed, formulaic, and shoddily written, it should be acknowledged that a few writers rose above the mediocre average to produce outstanding works of their kind.” For aficionados of weird fiction, Lovecraft is as essential as he is inescapable.
He was also a virulent, unrepentant racist. In recent years especially, this has caused problems for Lovecraft’s apologists. As the extent of systemic racism in America and elsewhere is peeled back, with the rise and resurgence of Black Lives Matter along with ongoing protests against anti-Black violence by police, debates about tearing down statues of Confederate generals, and a push for reparations for descendants of U.S. slaves, Lovecraft’s hateful attitudes toward race – always a troublesome part of the author’s legacy – have become impossible to ignore. Anyone wishing to deal with Lovecraft must also acknowledge his racial animus.
Some advocates of what has come to be known as “cancel culture” might argue that Lovecraft’s racism – which is evident in the fiction as much as in the author’s life – was so extreme that even reading him in 2021 should not be sanctioned. It is not possible in this case to separate the art from the artist, so ingrained are the noisome prejudices in the stories, which can’t even be excused by putting them in their historical context. This mindset helped successfully lobby the World Fantasy Awards, in 2015, to change the trophy they give out, which used to be a miniature bust of Lovecraft.
But erasing Lovecraft from history is not possible, given his importance to the development of horror and dark fantasy in the decades following his death, nor, for those who admire or are influenced by him, is it desirable. The author looms too large, and his shadow is too long to ever be completely obliterated. As Barbara Hambly writes, ”Lovecraft’s mythos is a standard part of the language of horror literature.”
In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle takes a different approach, one that simultaneously acknowledges the foundational importance of Lovecraft on him as a writer, and on the broader culture more generally, and offers a pointed critique of the barbed and corrosive elements of the earlier author’s racial hatred. To do this, LaValle rewrites one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist stories, “The Horror at Red Hook,” reconfiguring it as a commentary on the kind of anti-Black U.S. racism – in particular, as manifested in police violence against Black men – that is so prevalent in our current societal consciousness.
“The Horror at Red Hook” is about a policeman named Malone, who is responsible for apprehending illegal immigrants. His beat is the Red Hook district of Brooklyn, a neighbourhood known for its racial diversity. Or, as Lovecraft would have it, “a maze of hybrid squalor,” a “babel of sound and filth” that “sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.” Malone becomes involved with the investigation of Robert Suydam, a Dutchman whose relatives suspect has gone insane. Suydam has become something close to a recluse, walling himself up in his dilapidated home with his library of esoteric books, having let his appearance become dishevelled and his body run to obesity. When he is seen in company, it is with “swarthy, evil-looking strangers.”
In both Lovecraft’s version of the story and LaValle’s, Suydam functions as the gatekeeper allowing demonic, otherworldly forces access to our plane of existence, where they wreak havoc and chaos. Where LaValle breaks away from the Lovecraftian template is in introducing a new protagonist, Charles Thomas Tester, a Black hustler from Harlem who Suydam hires to play “dusky tunes” on the guitar for guests of a party he is throwing at his estate. It is Tommy, refashioned as Black Tom, who assists Suydam in calling forth the Sleeping King, one of the Great Old Ones who are supposed to lay waste to humanity but for the believers, like Suydam and his party guests, who will rule the world to come.
What is fascinating is the way LaValle subverts Lovecraft’s narrative by a shift in perspective. LaValle repeats Lovecraft’s “maze of hybrid squalor” line, but puts in the mouth of Suydam, rather than the close third-person narrator associated with Malone in the original. In so doing, he recasts this formulation from something closely aligned with the forces of good in the story and makes it an explicitly malign utterance, put forth from the mouth of a man who is at best insane, at worst in thrall to a league of vengeful demons.
The figure of Malone in The Ballad of Black Tom is not a villain, though neither is he willing to acknowledge the true extent of the social inequity around him. He is initally partnered with a private investigator named Mr. Howard, who is responsible for shooting Tommy’s father, Otis, after mistaking the old man’s guitar for a rifle. “I felt in danger for my life,” Mr. Howard says in the aftermath. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.” The excessive violence perpetrated on an unarmed Black man in his own home is a caustic comment on recent events in American history, at the same time that it serves, in the context of LaValle’s narrative, as the precipitating factor that drives Tommy fully into the service of Suydam and results in his adopting the persona of Black Tom.
While Malone is not directly responsible for the fate of Tommy’s father, his passivity and indifference render him culpable; his guilt is metaphorically highlighted in the final, grotesque act of violence Black Tom visits upon him – with a razor Otis provided for Tommy’s protection in an early scene.
There are layers of irony at work in LaValle’s narrative, and he cannily includes explicit nods to Lovecraft’s original tale as well as allusions to those who have promoted and perpetuated Lovecraft’s status and myth down through the years. A reference to “a great and secret show” invokes the title of a novel by Clive Barker, and the Sleeping King chimes – both aurally and visually on the page – with the name of the undisputed heavyweight of American horror fiction.
In his survey of the modern horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King refers to Lovecraft as “the 20th-century horror story‘s dark and baroque prince.” He was also a writer who felt no compunction about caricaturing the racially heterogeneous denizens of Red Hook as filthy vagrants and criminals. What LaValle intends is to pull back the curtain on the people Lovecraft so despised to show them as fully human and to illustrate the ways societal forces can create villains out of broken and victimized men. “I bear a hell within me,” Black Tom tells Malone in LaValle’s novella. “And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.” When Malone accuses Black Tom of being a monster, the latter responds, “I was made one.”
The Ballad of Black Tom asks who the real monsters are: the eldritch horrors of the Sleeping King and the Great Old Ones, or the more quotidian horrors of those who inflict violence on racialized bodies, either directly or through a less forceful but equally damaging indifference to suffering.