The Ballad of Black Tom – A polar opposite of Lovecraftian fiction

I was looking for a short random horror book to read and came across something I never expected to find.

Alongside the fantastic legacy that H.P. Lovecraft has left us with, there lurks a shadow over it that not every fan enjoys to speak about – his racism and xenophobia. Now even if I try to always distinguish the art from the author this is something that always angered about him. I could try and justify it saying that it was a different time and people had a different view on the world but seeing some of his writing he does not deserve that.

It is also one of the things I find weirdest about him. You are writing about otherworldly creatures that make all of us insignificant in the larger scheme of things and yet you care about someone’s skin color?

But just attacking him would not do anything special either. He is long dead and we know that his world views were wrong. Instead, a better approach would be the approach of Victor LaValle, the author of this book.¬†One of Lovecraft’s most infamous stories was “The Horror at Red Hook” which featured some of his “fear” of immigrants. LaValle took this concept and spun it around.

The main character of the story is a young black man called Charles Thomas Tester who hustles on the streets of Harlem with his empty guitar case in the year 1924 in order to provide food on the table and pay for the rent and help his father. At first, he might look like any other person there but he is far from it. He has an eye for the arcane.

While running errands for wealthy white people, he comes across an odd man called Robert Suydam (who appears in Lovecraft’s story as well) who offers to pay him a large amount of money for playing in his house in three days time. Reluctant, he decides to take him up on his offer and prepares for the night. However, once he gets to his mansion things take a turn.

The book is told from two perspectives, first, the side of Tommy Tester, and then from the side of detective Malone (who also appears in Lovecraft’s story) which I will not get into too much since I don’t want to spoil much. Both parts had a different feel to me but both were fantastic and gripping.

I really enjoyed this book. As I said I found the title randomly, never expecting it to be connected to Lovecraft in any way and was completely blown away. The writing style is very simple (at least compared to Lovecraft) but very effective. I finished the book in one sitting, something that I rarely do. It paints a vivid picture for you with great world-building and has great and connectable characters, especially Tommy. I really liked him as a character, as well as his father who had a minor role yet was very memorable.

It is odd that I never heard of the book, especially since it is a fantastic cosmic horror book and has received a lot of praise, nominations, and awards. A truly great book that I would recommend even to people that are not fans of Lovecraft or cosmic horror. You would need some context of course but you can do without it.

Final verdict: 9/10

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