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The Ballad of Black Tom Kindle Edition
One of NPR's Best Books of 2016, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, the British Fantasy Award, the This is Horror Award for Novella of the Year, and a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards
People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?
"LaValle's novella of sorcery and skullduggery in Jazz Age New York is a magnificent example of what weird fiction can and should do."
— Laird Barron, author of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
"[LaValle] reinvents outmoded literary conventions, particularly the ghettos of genre and ethnicity that long divided serious literature from popular fiction."
— Praise for The Devil in Silver from Elizabeth Hand, author of Radiant Days
“LaValle cleverly subverts Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos by imbuing a black man with the power to summon the Old Ones, and creates genuine chills with his evocation of the monstrous Sleeping King, an echo of Lovecraft’s Dagon… [The Ballad of Black Tom] has a satisfying slingshot ending.” – Elizabeth Hand for Fantasy & ScienceFiction
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
"Full of rage and passion." ―The New York Times Book Review
"This ingenious recasting of an H.P. Lovecraft classic is as creepy as it is thought-provoking." ―People
"The Ballad of Black Tom stands on its own as a compelling weird tale of Jazz-age New York City, but its penetrating examination of Lovecraft’s creations and how they reflect racism’s profound influence on our cultural imagination is where it really shines." ―Slate
"Shirley Jackson Award–winner LaValle cleverly retcons H.P. Lovecraft’s infamous story “The Horror at Red Hook,” retelling it with a new protagonist (the titular Charles Thomas Tester, a splendidly Lovecraftian name) and a literary veneer that recalls Chester Himes." ―Publishers Weekly
"Wonderfully creepy and impossible to put down, The Ballad of Black Tom is a genre-bending must-read." ―BuzzFeed
"LaValle’s ingenious project involves co-opting Lovecraft’s epic-scale paranoia into the service of a trickster tale." ―Locus
"Whether The Ballad of Black Tom is approached as a straightforward tale of horror in the early 20th century or as a metafictional commentary on Lovecraft’s own storytelling choices and racism, it succeeds. It also stands as proof that the process of engaging with the conflicted feelings that the work of Lovecraft can prompt can lead to rewarding, emotionally compelling writing of its own." ―Electric Literature
"This book is full of wonder and horror and pain and magic and I cannot recommend it enough." ―BookRiot
"LaValle crafts a gem of a Lovecraftian novella, cleverly keeping his horrors just offstage. The real power of the story is Tom’s experiences of prejudice as a black man living in early 20th-century Harlem, and how he overcomes and subverts that prejudice, taking on whatever role he has to in order to get by: he is “Charles” to his father, “Tommy” to his friends, and eventually “Black Tom”―one to be feared." ―Library Journal
"The Ballad of Black Tom is a fresh take on cosmic horror." ― Dirge Magazine
"Victor LaValle brilliantly takes some of Lovecraft’s literary motifs and transforms them into social consciousness. To say this is no small feat is a major understatement." ― Diabolique Magazine
"With endless creativity and deft, seemingly effortless prose, LaValle has stolen the deliciously demonic soul of old Howard’s vilest story and made it into something new." ― The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
"A smartly written and well-paced homage that perfectly encapsulates the complicated feelings that many people have towards Lovecraft." ― SF Bluestocking
About the Author
Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, several novels, including The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, and an ebook-only novella, Lucretia and the Kroons.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the key to Southeast Queens.
He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and son. He teaches at Columbia University.
- ASIN : B0166PX1Z8
- Publisher : Tordotcom (February 16, 2016)
- Publication date : February 16, 2016
- Language : English
- File size : 1964 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 154 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #33,952 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Top reviews from the United States
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Now, it is no secret that Lovecraft held strong feelings about certain minority and immigrant groups, and THE HORROR AT RED HOOK is often singled out as the most egregious example. Because of this, there are some today that would prefer to banish Lovecraft’s entire body of work to the scrap heap because of it. I don’t happen to share that view. Lovecraft was a strange man, for certain, but a man of his time. A better response is what author Victor Lavalle has done. A black author of weird fiction, Lavalle has taken Lovecraft’s tale and reworked it from another viewpoint, the viewpoint of black would-be street-troubadour Charles Thomas Tester who plays a pivotal role in the unearthly happenings in the tenements of Robert Suydam, in the summoning of The Sleeping King.
THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is a wonderful novella, and I would strongly suggest reading Lovecraft’s story first, to set the scene, and to better appreciate how Lavalle has returned us to Lovecraft’s imperfect world. There are a few truly horrifying scenes to be had.
The story begins with us firmly planted in the reality of New York in the 1920s. We meet Charles Thomas Tester, a black man trying to make a living in a white-dominated city. The author puts us right there so that we feel the racism and the police brutality. The setting and the circumstances are masterfully handled.
Then, when we're comfortable in this setting, we're gradually nudged into the abyss. Because we started from such a real place, the supernatural aspects feel all the more possible and all the more unnerving.
This short novel has surprising potency.
There's this whole movement of Lovecraft reclamation, including Matt Ruff's _Lovecraft Country_, Kij Johnson's _The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe_ ... and this.
Lavalle, an African-American, has taken the most notoriously racist of all Lovecraft's stories, "The Horror at Red Hook," and overlaid it with something completely different.
The first half of the book is told from the (third-person) point of view of Tommy Tester, a Harlem busker and conman. As the story opens, he delivers a damaged copy of "The Supreme Alphabet" to a mysterious not-exactly-a-woman calling herself Ma Att - a reference, not to the phone company, but the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice. Tommy is hired by a rich white man named Suydam to play guitar at one of his parties in Queens. Suydam proves to be a student of mystic stuff like, well, the Supreme Alphabet; and speaks of a "Sleeping King" who lives under the ocean and has a name Tommy doesn't catch. Suydam is also being watched by a private detective named Howard, and a police officer named Malone who knows a bit about mystic stuff, at the behest of his family, who want to control his fortune.
On returning from the party, where some really lowlife (and "ethnic") people agree to join Suydam in his mystical quest for power, Tommy finds his father murdered by the detective Howard. Since Howard is white and Tester was black, Howard's story is believed and he is let go without arrest or penalty. This drives Tommy into Suydam's arms, where he becomes "Black Tom," Suydam's second in command.
The rest of the story (except for a coda) is told from Malone's PoV, and more or less follows the plot of "Red Hook," except for the climax ... which nonetheless is reconciled to the Lovecraft story by the time the story ends. (The single most important element of Lovecraft's original which Lavalle omits entirely is Suydam's marriage and its aftermath.)
This is without question a better piece of fiction than Lovecraft's original; but could not have existed without it, nor can it have its full impact except in dialog with it. This is its greatest weakness. The other neoLovecraftian tales I mentioned above can stand on their own. While this one can, it is a fairly ordinary tale of urban horror without that context.
Top reviews from other countries
This story is set in New York in the 1920s. Charles Thomas Tester is a man from Harlem who earns money to support himself and his prematurely aging father by grifting. He has the reputation of being a go-to guy to fetch esoteric objects, and it is when he is hired to fetch a book for a white woman in Queens that the story begins.
It’s a tale of magic and power and the appropriation by whites of power paid for in black flesh. The streets of New York are toxic with hate, and a final tragedy, relating to the book, leads to Tester having nothing left to lose. A freedom that allows him to dare where others falter in fear.
It’s a beautiful narrative, taking the best and the worst from Lovecraft and showing it from the perspective of a person of colour. It’s full of gorgeous prose and leaves the reader feeling richer for the experience. Tester/Black Tom is constantly overlooked and underappreciated, but it is he who will triumph, albeit in a pyrrhic victory.
The opening of the book sets the stage perfectly -
“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place… They come looking for magic; whether good or evil, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.”
Other quotes I love -
“Nobosy ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.”
“The more I read, the more I listened, the more sure I became that a great and secret show had been playing throughout my life, throughout all our lives, but the mass of us were too ignorant, or too frightened, to raise our eyes and watch. Because to watch would be to understand the play isn’t being staged for us.”
The Ballad of Black Tom is a novella that will take its readers on a roller coaster of emotions with a gripping pace, a main character that will haunt you for a long time and a remarkable style with very strong Lovecraftian references, sometimes turned upon their heads. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, a novella that you must read, even if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea.
A moderately talented musician, Thomas Tester's real difficulties begin when he is asked to travel over to Queens, there to deliver a book (it always begins with a book, right?) to the indeterminable Ma Att.
Confession time: I opened the pages of The Ballad of Black Tom without knowing a whole lot about the novella, other than its general association to Cosmic Horrors. This was a purposeful act on my part, the book coming my way with high recommendation. For this reason I was a little slow on the uptake, sure I recognized certain character names, though still without realizing that the author was sourcing H.P. Lovecraft's The Horror at Red Hook.
The fact that Victor Lavalle chooses to draw from aspects of Red Hook, it works really well. Lavalle embraces the issue of racism - so prevalent during that period of American history, and also prevalent in so much of Lovecraft's own writings - and demonstrates that, irregardless of color we are all human beings, and deserve to be treated as such.
I can imaging H.P. spinning in his grave at such an outlandish proposition.
Victor Lavalle writes with a crisp fluidity that makes it difficult to put this book down, and it certainly makes me want to seek out more of his works. This was headed towards being a five star review, but I knocked one star off because the ending just felt a little 'unfinished.' I understand why Lavalle wrapped proceedings as he did - it's difficult to make too many advances into the world of Lovecraft's Mythos - but I still would have preferred some bigger reveal.
On the whole, The Ballad of Black Tom is a quick read and pretty darn good. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys well written Cosmic Horror.
It kept me gripped throughout and did exactly what this type of book aims to do by scaring the hell out of me on a couple of occasions. Given the time of year, I would recommend you check it out as one of your Halloween reads.
Lavalle himself makes reference to his 'conflicted feelings' about Lovecraft in his dedication, and I think the story itself is a good representation of that. Some shifts in perspective are well-handled and characterisation is impressive. Lavalle also does well building a bewitching atmosphere out of some familiar stygian building blocks. It's also refreshing that he avoids the cliches of Lovecraftian language: nothing is 'indescribable,' 'Eldritch,' 'cyclopean' etc; the atmosphere is down to good writing, not parody.
I enjoyed it. Would recommend to readers of the uncanny.