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The Ballad of Black Tom

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Horror (2016)
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?

149 pages, Paperback

First published February 16, 2016

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About the author

Victor LaValle

106 books2,778 followers
Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, four novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, The Devil in Silver, and The Changeling and two novellas, Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom. He is also the creator and writer of a comic book Victor LaValle's DESTROYER.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens.

He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and kids. He teaches at Columbia University.

He can be kind of hard to reach, but he still loves you.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,946 reviews
Profile Image for Elena May.
Author 13 books697 followers
February 16, 2020
Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he?

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Full disclaimer: I’m not familiar with Lovecraft’s works. I’ve read quite a bit about him but never read his actual writing. Fans will probably perceive this differently, but from my newbie point of view, this was an atmospheric, pleasantly weird page-turner that easily stood on its own.

I have to admit I liked the historical fiction elements much more than the fantasy parts. We see this richly described and absolutely beautiful version of 1920s Harlem through Thomas Tester’s eyes:

Walking through Harlem first thing in the morning was like being a single drop of blood inside an enormous body that was waking up. Brick and mortar, elevated train tracks, and miles of underground pipe, this city lived; day and night it thrived.

Before Thomas Tester goes through a creepy transformation, he can see beauty in everything despite the poverty and oppression . Seeing Harlem through his eyes, I also found it charming. And that’s unusual – in the recent years, I’ve lost my ability to find charm in busy, crowded cities. When I first visited NYC, I thought it was amazing and loved how alive it was. But then, I spent some time in very overcrowded places, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, and then over a year in London, and now I’d choose a quiet place where you can hear the birds singing over a crowded metropolis on any day. And yet, I read this and I loved 1920s Harlem.

And then we get Cthulhu...

Yeah... I admit I never got the appeal.

The fantasy elements aren’t as impressive as the historical. There isn’t much world-building as the book is essentially a Lovecraft fanfic, so the mythos is already there. I’m not the best judge on how well that was done, but still some things didn’t make sense. A mysterious old lady, who is hinted to be a powerful non-human entity, goes through a lot of trouble to get The Supreme Alphabet, and then never seems to use it. The Alphabet has been in her possession for a week when she is easily defeated and doesn’t seem to put in any struggle. Also, our protagonist, Thomas Tester / Black Tom, becomes powerful off-screen. I would have preferred to see how he gets there.

The book’s greatest strength seems to be that it takes the incredibly racist source material and creates a critical retelling. Indeed, in some ways The Ballad of Black Tom tackles the topics of racism, prejudice, and police brutality in the US really well. It may all seem a bit cartoonish and heavy-handed at first, but not in the way that makes readers pat themselves on the back and say, “Well done! It was sooo bad back then, but we don’t have these problems anymore!” On the contrary – while we see that it was indeed horrible back then, the parallels to what is happening nowadays are clear and uncomfortable. The real horror is that almost a hundred year later, things haven’t changed all that much.

But this is also what bothers me the most about this book. It tries to be a reaction to Lovecraft’s racism, but at the same time it creates an exoticised, mystical, violent, and dehumanized image of immigrants. Robert Suydam , the rich white man who plans to summon Cthulhu, invites a group of fifty recent immigrants he plans to use as allies:

Tester knew how to recognize a room full of roughnecks. This bunch qualified. Suydam had haunted waterfronts and back alleys to find this crew of cutthroats. The kind of place Tommy imagined the Victoria Society would be was what these criminals called home sweet home.

We never hear them speak. We never learn anything about their lives or even learn their names. All we see is their reaction to Robert Suydam’s plan to destroy the world as we know it and rise from the ashes:

They shouted back. They clapped each other on the shoulders. Founding fathers of a new nation, or even better, a world now theirs to administer and control.

ALL OF THEM??? Not a single one questions the plan? Not a single one disagrees? They are an indistinguishable, monolithic block, and the only one who stands out is Thomas Tester – the one born and raised in the US.

While immigrants are mentioned all over the book, not a single one ever speaks. The only kind of exceptions are when a woman says something in a language the detective doesn’t understand (so we are practically told she speaks, but not what she says) and when Thomas Tester’s friend remembers two brothers from Fiji, long dead, who mentioned Cthulhu. Hmmmm. Fiji has a rich and original mythology, and all of this is erased and replaced by Lovecraft’s creations. Not cool.

I also have to mention that there are no female characters in this book (and, no, I’m not going to call the non-human entity that barely speaks or the nameless witness “characters.”) Since the majority of main characters could have been gender-swapped easily, this skewed all-male world in an urban setting appears to be the author’s choice, for whatever reason.

Overall, while not perfect, the novella is fun, fast-paced and thought-provoking . Readers, unfamiliar with Lovecraft, can still understand and appreciate it. Perhaps Lovecraft fans will enjoy it even more.

I read this book as a part of my goal to read all Hugo finalists.
Profile Image for Kat.
270 reviews80k followers
May 19, 2020
yeah, so anyway, if any of u horror lovers out there haven't read this yet DO IT.
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
554 reviews60.5k followers
January 9, 2021
I don't know what I was expecting but certainly not that.... in a good way!

I have a complicated relationship which shorter books. Too often I feel dissatisfied with them as they're simply missing something... probably content.

It wasn't the case at all with the dark fantasy set in New York. A lot of people compare it to Lovecraft, which I have yet to read but I'm now looking forward to.

Would recommend!
Profile Image for Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin.
3,538 reviews9,969 followers
September 22, 2017

Okay. I have never read Lovecraft's Cthulhu. I want to but there are so many different editions I don't know which one is the best. This book is supposed to be referenced but I wouldn't know. There is one quote from the book:

Malone finally heard the last words Black Tom whispered down in the basement.

I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.

I was a little bored with the book in the beginning because I couldn't figure out what was going on, but after awhile it clicked (somewhat) and it was great. The scene down in the basement, my favorite! I loved Black Tom himself!

Once again if again if anyone can give me some good rec's to the best Cthulhu book I would greatly appreciate it 😊 Oh, and put them under the comments because I have GR book recs disabled. I only see a book review from there if I'm going to read that particular book. Thanks.

Mel ❤️
Profile Image for Karl.
3,258 reviews277 followers
August 15, 2017
It seems to be my month for trying new authors not read prior, and also I noticed all of the good press, here on GR, from friends and others, so I thought I would give “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle a go.

I read the book in one sitting, and perhaps TMI, didn’t even take a bathroom break.

This should say something about author Victor LaValle’s ability to capture a reader and keep him enthralled.

The book begins by telling a story about a young black street hustler in the 1920’s New York street and music scene. Mr. LaValle introduces a bit of tension and begins to incorporate aspects of Cosmic Evil and it’s relation to our main character. This brought about a kind of ha ha moment as I asked myself. “Why does the evil so often arrive in the form of a book?”

At this point we are switched POV characters to a New York policeman who happens to be interested in the worlds underbelly of sinister evil itself.

Then all hell breaks loose as our Cthulhu tries to enter our world through an opened gateway and wreaks havoc with New York’s finest and a slew of anti-aircraft weapons.

Mr. Victor LaValle manages to pull the whole thing off with style and grace, thus making it necessary to add to my book collection more of this authors creations.
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
3,005 reviews10.6k followers
July 15, 2016
Tommy Tester is a hustler, doing what he has to to make ends meet and support his ailing father. When he meets Robert Suydam, things will never be the same...

I've always been a bigger fan of things inspired by H.P. Lovecraft than the man's actual work. It's certainly been a good few months for H.P. Lovecraft-inspired fiction for me. First, there was Carter & Lovecraft, then Lovecraft Country, and now this novella, the Ballad of Black Tom.

Victor LaValle has taken The Horror at Red Hook, called Lovecraft's most racist book by some, and turned it inside out.

Tommy Tester delivers a magical tome to an old woman, runs afoul of two detectives, and meets up with an old man bent on waking The Sleeping King from his dead and dreaming slumber. Needless to say, a lot happens in this slim book.

There was a viewpoint shift about halfway through. While I didn't think Malone was as interesting as Black Tom, the story couldn't have been told without him. LaValle does a fantastic job of capturing the Lovecraftian flavor of The Horror at Red Hook and makes it his own. I loved the ending of this book. Hell, I devoured the whole thing in one sitting.

4.5 out of 5 stars. I'll be watching Victor LaValle with great interest.
Profile Image for carol..
1,576 reviews8,238 followers
October 3, 2022
Nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and Shirley Jackson Awards,* The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine little novella, made accessible to horror dilettantes by the graciousness of Tor.com. Set in New York City in the 1920s, it is apparently the author's answer to a more than vaguely racist Lovecraft classic where he was lamenting all those immigrants in NYC.


For me, some transitions felt extremely choppy, and now that I read an analysis of the source material, my suspicion is that LaValle was hewing too closely to the original. When I was pondering what I would say in my review, I was thinking about characterization and trying to pinpoint if it was the problem, but it wasn't, not really--the characters felt very real to me, well drawn at that moment in time. It's just that their personalities as the story evolved didn't seem congruent. The more I thought on it, the more dissatisfied I became; I believed in Tom's somewhat easy-going con-man approach, the earnestness of his father, the fanaticism of the older white dude. So it wasn't a character creation issue. But once I understood that LaValle was trying to force his characters to follow--and yet subvert--the original story, it made sense. Marlow didn't make much sense to me at all, but I think we can lay that at Lovecraft's feet.

Atmosphere is well-crafted. LaValle definitely captures a sense of time period, and then the sense of the eerie, especially the visits to the elderly woman, and then the bloody violence. The party of thugs didn't make sense, but again--Lovecraft. I guess that's the problem with parodies/spoofs/riffs: the failings of the source material.

The writing is solid and the imagery is vivid. Overall, worth reading if you are a fan of Lovecraftian horror,** bloody folk tales, or revenge fantasies. 

*I'll leave off mentioning the GR Choice Awards, because this site as a conglomerate has terrible taste. Not you people, of course. All the other ones who seem to think Pierce Brown is the only one in the world that can write Sci-Fi, and J.K. Rowling, Fantasy. I won't speak on Stephen King and Horror because I'm not qualified, but it's also worth noting that he's also nominated every time he writes anything.***

**Brief side rant on Lovecraft: I am annoyed by his writing. It's cumbersome, florid, and dated. Just because there are otherworldly beings that want to eat the human race alive doesn't mean the dude gets a whole genre in his name. Otherwise we should call everything that has monsters wanting to be men, Shelley-Horror (I was going to go for 'Shelleyian,' but phonetically that sounds too much like Shelley-Ann). Doesn't work, does it? I cry genre sexism!

***See my my review of The Stand.
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
412 reviews2,219 followers
October 3, 2018
“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”

A story juxtaposing Lovecraftian mythology against the racism and inequality of 1920s New York is so deliciously poetic; it left me amazed that no one had thought of it before now. I love that this constant inequality ends up being reason enough to justify drastic, desperate action to bring about its end, by dealing with forces the protagonist doesn’t fully understand, but welcomes wholeheartedly.

Thoroughly enjoyable.
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
February 16, 2021
looking for great books to read during black history month...and the other eleven months? i'm going to float some of my favorites throughout the month, and i hope they will find new readers!

although lovecraft hails from the great state of rhode island and providence plantations, and we have few enough literary feathers in our tiny hat (and because there are apparently rules about who can be claimed and who cannot, and cormac mccarthy’s moving to memphis from his providence birthplace at four years old - an age where he was basically luggage and certainly not choosing to leave the ocean state behind, nonetheless renders him ineligible to be counted as one of us), i have never been a lovecraft fan.

and wouldn’t it be commendable if i could claim to be all aglow with high-minded outrage, disliking him on principle, finding his racist and misogynistic views so unacceptable that they caused me to boycott his work in an admirable, if somewhat smug, demonstration of righteousness? but that ain’t even it. i tried reading him when i was, like, twelve, and i just found it boring and cheesy and the horror equivalent of panning away from the romantic leads just before they give in to their passion in a very naked way. everything was suggested, occluded, and i wanted to see the good bloody stuff, thank you very much.

but as it happens, apart from writing boring-ass stories, lovecraft was a super-douche. (and by all accounts, cormac mccarthy is a professional, decent, and humble gentleman, so you’re welcome, tennessee) this book is lavalle’s reworking of lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, which is apparently considered to be lovecraft’s “most racist ever,” despite the existence of his poem On the Creation of Niggers, which goes a little something like this:

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

that is stunningly toxic, but at least it is very short. if The Horror at Red Hook is somehow even more racist and also longer and probably also filled with his brand of “dude, this horror i’m writing about is so horrifying, i can’t even tell you about it. seriously. it would blow your mind too much. just trust me -it is super scary wwwwOOOoooo…,” well, i’m happy to avoid it.

all of this to say that i have no clue how this novella functions as a response to or a reworking of the original. all i know is that i enjoyed lavalle’s writing, particularly the way he scrapped that turgid lovecraftian vocabulary, and chose to employ a modified version of lovecraft’s inexpressible horror, where the horror is at least partially expressed; described enough so it retains a sense of mystery without leaving the reader with nothing.

bonus points for name-dropping the fine little rhody towns of pascoag and chepachet, which were mentioned in the source material, so no biggie there (yeah, i researched this read the wikipedia page, what?), but for ALSO mentioning woonsocket, the location of the hospital in which i first drew breath.

i don’t know what is happening there, but it seems about right.

to conclude: h.p. lovecraft - an unpleasant man with a gigantic head buried in the cemetery where i used to smoke pot and take gothy pictures.

victor lavalle - a man from queens (represent!) who seems quite affable and counters lovecraft's bullshit with this book and a photograph i am calling "the horror at red tongue..."

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Zain.
1,463 reviews154 followers
January 8, 2023
A Series?

This book is wonderful! I have enjoyed it, immensely! And to think, I never heard of this book before I heard about it from my book club.

A young Black man, during 1920’s Harlem, lives with his father and survives by his wits. His mother is dead and his father is disabled, and the son is a con man.

His only legitimate work is running errands. He make deliveries of unusual items. This pays well.

Although he is a musical disaster, having not an ounce of musical talent, he drags a guitar case around wherever he goes. He leaves his guitar at home.

It is his parents who have the gift for music. His mother played the piano until hard work and poverty took her away. And hard work has disabled his own father, but his father can play the guitar, so he leaves it home with him.

So, after earning $200 dollars for delivering a mysterious book, he decides to purchase a new guitar. One day, while fake playing this guitar, as usual, he is approached by a strange, old white man.

Although each are unaware of it, they both size each other up, and each like what they see. Tommy Tester, the young Black man, is hired by Suydam, the strange, old, white man, to come to his house in a few days, and play his guitar for his guests.

Tommy agrees, and is given $100 as a down payment and promised $300 more. As soon as Suydam walks away, Tommy is brutally robbed by two white men, who had been watching them.

Well, who are they? What do they want? And who is Suydam? What is his interest in Tommy? I would love to tell you, but I think you should read the book and find out.

Five fantastic stars. ✨✨✨✨✨
Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books971 followers
July 20, 2019
Didn't work for me, unfortunately. I admire the idea of interacting with the good and bad of Lovecraft, and the novel probably does work as creative literary criticism, but since I'm not that interested in Lovecraft I think I missed a lot of the wit. As a stand alone story I struggled to connect with the characters or feel any sense of awe or fear when the beasties show up. For the most part, the mystical portions seem to show up just for the sake of being monstrous and doesn't add to the story. The writing is good, though. I'll probably pick up something else by LaValle eventually.
Profile Image for Char.
1,682 reviews1,557 followers
August 1, 2016
4.5 stars!

“Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.”

In The Ballad of Black Tom we have a Lovecraftian novella, written by a phenomenal black writer. It's set in the 20's which was not exactly the best time to be a black person in this country. LaValle has taken the Lovecraft story "The Horror at Red Hook" and turned it on its head. To that I say, Bravo!!

As a blues fan, I'll add an extra BRAVO for the Son House lyrics. "Don't you mind people grinning in your face?" Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I do.

My highest recommendation!
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,883 reviews16.6k followers
January 7, 2020
Amongst the unnamable and innumerable legion of books and stories who have been inspired by HP Lovecraft, a thoughtful reader can make divisions into “fan lit” in the lower shelves, akin to the discount whiskies and blended Scotches, to the middle shelves of Kentucky bourbons and Tennessee whiskies (Jack and George) with the motivated stand-alone stories paying subtle tribute, to the top shelf single malt Scotch and single barrels of truly amazing works who have used Lovecraft as a starting off point for their embarkation into the eldritch and arcane.

We can find Victor LaValle’s 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom on the top shelf next to the Crown Royal black.

Paying tribute to Lovecraft, this is also a remarkable work in that LaValle uses settings and themes reminiscent of Lovecraft while also telling a gritty, horrific story on it’s own. I thought of films like the 1987 Alan Parker film Angel Heart, Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film The Cotton Club and Eddie Murphy’s 1989 film Harlem Nights as LaValle has crafted a tale that brings to life the colorful and vibrant life of Harlem in the 1920s. (Even though Angel Heart was actually set later).

Most compelling, though, is that LaValle has created a dramatic response to Lovecraft’s most racist story, The Horror at Red Hook. Lovecraft’s 1927 story describes a xenophobic anxiety about the multi-cultural mix of ethnicities in this section of New York. Whereas Lovecraft had used his own time’s intolerance of immigrants to produce a story of racist fear and loathing, LaValle turns the angst and temerity of the downtrodden against the white establishment, and produces a Cthulhu story set apart by its own audacity. This is a Lovecraftian story with a modern day twist.

Recommended for fans of the New Cthulhu as well as horror fans in general, a very good read.

Profile Image for Philip.
513 reviews683 followers
December 16, 2017
2.5ish stars

A weird, creepy, enjoyable little book. Equal parts historical fiction and horror, and more than just the natural horror of the historical setting.

LaValle provides a confident, well-written commentary on racism which, indeed, is dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft, infamously racist himself, and the man whose work this is based on: For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings

Very atmospheric and strange, but a little too unfocused and murky with characters too distant to be particularly fascinating. I wouldn't have minded a little more book. I doubt it will stay with me. This might be more significant and entertaining after reading The Horror at Red Hook which this is apparently more or less a re-imagining of.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
April 27, 2017
Nominated for '17 Hugos, I had to take it on, but like almost all of the stories nominated this year, I'm having a grand ole time.

This is a traditional tale of Cthulhu, only it's a damn sight less racist and the prose is as smooth as gin. It also doesn't fear to go the route of humanizing and demonizing at the very same time. Anti-hero? Oh, yes, please. Tommy is a real treat. I even got around to loving the detective. :)

Harlem in the 20's was a special time, and even a man with no musical talent could still make a living as a trickster with a guitar. :) The fantasy elements sneaks up on you within the lush period, and before we know it, we've gone from Gaimanish right to Lovecraft, and then right back to an introspective horror at what had been wrought. :) Totally delightful, very wicked. :)

Profile Image for Beverly.
836 reviews314 followers
June 22, 2019
A wondrous modern fable, The Ballad of Black Tom is the story of Charles Thomas Tester, a small time hustler in New York in the 1920s. He deals in magic and helps his poor, crippled father live as comfortably as possible. Soon he meets someone who promises riches and power, but what does Tom have to give up to get these riches?
Profile Image for Tim.
477 reviews662 followers
May 25, 2020
"For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings"

I had just finished Lovecraft Country, and decided that apparently I needed more examination of racism in horror fiction in my life. This one is less than half the size, yet I read it at a much slower pace. That was not because it was bad by any means, but unlike Lovecraft Country, there was no comic relief to help you. This one was uncomfortable from start to finish, and LaValle didn't want you to take comfort from humor at an point.

While it is certainly a cosmic horror story (it's much more in conversation with Lovecraft than the book with his name in the title above), the most effective horror again lies in the real world. There was only one line in this book that made me feel a sense of emptiness and it was a simple one: "It was a guitar."

If one was judging solely on the feeling of discomfort, then this would be a masterpiece. It was uncomfortable in the real world setting and when the cosmic horror does kick in, it's uncomfortable there. It's well done in terms of that hopeless dread that Lovecraft was known for. Perhaps a touch too well done for my comfort, to be perfectly honest... which to be fair, is the point, and it should be praised accordingly.

My main issues with the book are the transitions. Some of them (particularly in the first section of the book) feel awkward, almost like there's a deleted scene; one that made the transition smoother, but was deemed unnecessary for the story. This isn't the case every chapter break, but there was enough of them to take me out of the story for a few moments.

Overall, this is a very solid read. In doing a comparison to Lovecraft Country (which interestingly not only came out the same year, but the SAME DAY), I would say this book honestly gets the horror better, but of the two I prefer the other. Still a solid 4/5 stars.

"I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."
Profile Image for Sadie Hartmann.
Author 21 books4,870 followers
December 31, 2019
This was the first book I downloaded to my Kindle. What a way to break into the world of digital reading! At this point, it needs to be said that I've only read Lovecraftian-inspired literature but never any actual Lovecraft. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest.
You don't need any prior knowledge of Lovecraft's work other than a slight brush against some of the more identifiable attributes of his mythos: An overarching cosmic ambiguity that is so massive or foreign to our understanding, it threatens the fragility of our finite minds. Oh! And anything with tentacles is an automatic nod to Lovecraft. *wink* *ahem* also, I guess it's important to note that H. P. Lovecraft was a racist.
That being said, THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is Lovecraftian but it definitely has it's own style going on. LaValle layers in some appropriate social commentary so that while readers can easily identify the story's inspiration, we can also recognize it as breaking down some Lovecraftian walls.
Set in 1920's Harlem (can all future books be set in the Roaring 20s pleeeease??) Tommy Tester is trying to live his best life. Amidst all his hustling and swindling he finds himself embroiled with this guy that is clearly bent on some kind of "otherworldly business".
Later, the POV changes and the momentum of the story takes a swift dive into darkness. I absolutely had no idea what to expect with this novella! I didn't even read the synopsis. I only knew that everyone I know in the horror-loving community sings this book's praises, so I was determined to get into it at some point.
This is a modern classic. When we go to compile our all-time favorite horror lists, you can bet THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM will make the rounds. Thrilling, clever, terrifying--I loved this read and will be picking up more from LaValle in 2020.

Book Blurb: "A modern classic, this book deserves to be on everyone's shelves as the gold standard for Lovecraftian fiction. LaValle deals with Lovecraft's racist, antiquated, xenophobic undertones by allowing a new generation of readers to see the imaginative mythos through the eyes of Tommy Tester. Genius."
Profile Image for Johann (jobis89).
674 reviews4,303 followers
February 19, 2021
“For HP Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.”

In The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle – an African American writer – takes what is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most xenophobic stories, The Horror at Red Hook, and he flips it on its head, using Lovecraft’s mythology as a way to explore and discuss racism, poverty and police brutality. And it was INCREDIBLE. This is what I wanted Lovecraft Country to be!

This novella follows Charles Thomas Tester, an African American living in Harlem in the 1920s, who poses as a blues musician in order to smuggle occult texts. Part 1 is told from the perspective of Tommy, before flipping to Part 2, which is from the perspective of a Detective who becomes involved in the case. And this works SO well.

Lovecraftian fiction is one of my favourite sub-genres of horror, I live for cosmic horror and the fear of the unknown, the Elder Gods and the insanity that characters often face as a consequence of literally not being able to comprehend what they are witnessing. Lovecraft is more than just tentacles. LaValle has taken what is quite a poor Lovecraft story – for a number of reasons – and completely revamped and modernised it.

I simply loved how LaValle took inspiration from Lovecraft’s original story, celebrating his staggering imagination and world-building, whilst simultaneously bringing attention to the dark side of Lovecraft and his limited worldview. I understand that it is difficult for some to read and appreciate Lovecraft’s work, but I admire LaValle for how he handles his frayed relationship with the author, recognising his “conflicted feelings” in the dedication. LaValle perfectly demonstrates that it is possible to read and enjoy Lovecraft, as long as you acknowledge his faults too – which is something that I try to do.

Unputdownable from start to finish, it was fresh and exciting and the best Lovecraftian story that I have read since John Langan’s The Fisherman. My only qualm – I wanted more! 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,215 reviews3,219 followers
November 28, 2022
3.5 stars
I am a huge fan of Victor LaValle's full length horror novel so I was excited to read the reprint of his horror novel. As always, I love how the author brings a black ownvoices perspective in this racially charged story.

As I understand, this is a retelling of a racist story by Lovecraft. I love the idea of LaValle reclaiming that story for the  lack community. I personally have not read that story so I didn't necessarily catch those references. 

I liked this one, but I will admit that I prefer the Changling and The Devil in Silver. The biggest factor is that I don't have much a connection to this period or setting. Historical horror is rarely my favourite genre but I appreciate it.

I would recommend this novella to anyone who is looking to read a diverse story that addresses the racism that has plagued the history of the horror genre.

Disclaimer I received a copy of this book from the publisher. 
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews142 followers
January 27, 2019
I picked this novella up for free and slowly read it on my phone whenever I was waiting for the bus.

What will stick with me is the good focus on the racially charged New York of the early 1900s and the sketchy world of exploitatively evil white people doing magic within that.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,000 reviews382 followers
March 25, 2016
"The veil of ignorance has been set over your face since birth. Shall I pull it free?"
While I'm generally familiar with HP Lovecraft and his work, including his Cthulhu mythos, I haven't read that much from him. From what I gather though, he was a hardcore racist, and one must look past some of the uncomfortable material in his work to get to the good stuff and appreciate him. It seems like this has been the case with author Victor LaValle, who begrudgingly considers himself a fan. But he decided to use this conflicted appreciation of the horror master as inspiration for his latest project. In this novella, he has taken what many consider to be one of Lovecraft's most xenophobic work, "The Horror at Red Hook," and remixed it, cleverly transforming it into a cosmic horror tale that is also a commentary on racial and immigrant prejudice, and a big clapback at Lovecraft's bigotry in his own work.
The smell of age, meaning undifferentiated time, had settled throughout the home, a musty odor, as if the winds of the present never blew through here.
I don't want to say much about the plot other than it's about a young black hustler in Harlem that does whatever it takes to survive as a black man in 1920's New York, the strange world he encounters in the underbelly of the city, and how these things affect and provide an outlet for his frustration and anger at the oppression that he must endure everyday. There's some great creepy imagery in this that LaValle handles masterfully and with a steady pace that sucks you in, making this short book hard to put down.
A cataclysm was happening on Parker Place, and belowground the air here smelled of sewage and smoke and the threat of divination.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,982 reviews1,991 followers
August 24, 2017
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: 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?

**2017 Hugo passes over this worthy novella**make it up to Author LaValle and buy his book**

My Review: If I make a criticism of this wonderful story, it's the author's choice of the novella form to tell it.

My critique (meant to be a helpful form of criticism, the latter of which leaves no room for action or explanation) is about the issues that in part arise from that choice of form.

Author La Valle's tasty new twist on the Cthulhu mythos is an example of later creators using the source material better than the original creator did. This story even nods to the man from Providence himself! I've left a wide swath of ten notes on highlights and they should all be read as part of this review.

I particularly admire Author La Valle's depth of characterization in the limited space of a novella. Otis, Thomas's father, in particular comes to more vivid life in his short time on the age than he would have in the weaker, less passionate grip of a lesser writer. The evocation of Red Hook's louche miasmic atmosphere was shivery good; the notion of Flatbush as countryside where cottages and even a run-down mansion could exist, and mentions of "rural Brooklyn," left me verschmeckeled but in that time were plain old facts.

And now for the truly, unspeakably, beyond-Lovecraftian terror contained in this work: AMC is making a TV series out of it in 2018.

Be very, very afraid.
Profile Image for Gianfranco Mancini.
2,210 reviews793 followers
April 19, 2021

Uno splendido remake di "Orrore a Red Hook", uno dei più xenofobi racconti di Lovecraft ma anche uno dei più visionari.
Il Solitario di Providence ha infatti il merito di aver influenzato quasi ogni racconto, libro o film dell'orrore moderno (non ci credete? Facciamo un esempio: Pennywise il clown di It è senza dubbio uno dei Grandi Antichi lovecraftiani, ed alla fine del racconto si rivela in tutta la sua grandiosa essenza... resa malissimo nella vecchia miniserie tv in due parti, ma all'epoca gli effetti speciali erano quello che erano, molto meglio nel film It - Capitolo due del 2019, ma il precedente adattamento cinematografico-televisivo del capolavoro kinghiano resta a mio parere decisamente superiore), tuttavia come persona era un alienato ed un razzista, ma questo era dovuto soprattutto alle amorevoli (ed oppressive) cure materne, ed all'epoca in cui era vissuto.
Il racconto breve di Victor LaValle è uno splendido mix di ricostruzione storica (si respira davvero l'aria delka New York anni '20) e di orrore cosmico, da un lato un omaggio di cuore al Lovecraft scrittore, dall'altro uno sfogo dei sentimenti contrastanti dell'autore verso il Lovecraft uomo, il tutto condito dall'apparizione del Grande Cthulhu in persona e da alcune scene raccapriccianti e d'atmosfera che rimarranno a lungo nella mente di questo lettore.
E l'esilarante "Easter Egg" a pag. 85 dove Lovecraft e la moglie Sonia Green (non vengono nominati ma sono loro due senza ombra di dubbio) vengono gentilmente invitati a tornarsene a Providence dalla polizia, ha alzato il voto finale di questa recensione da 4 a 5 stelle.

Uno dei rari casi in cui il remake è decisamente superiore all'originale.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,641 reviews2,159 followers
January 15, 2016
These days there's much discussion about what to do with the difficult legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. What do you do with one of the founders of modern horror who was not only racist but includes those views in his writing? If you're a person who reads widely or likes to deep dive, at some point you may find yourself confronting the question of whether you should read Lovecraft and what it means.

I have good news for you. You don't need to read Lovecraft anymore. Instead, you can read THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM. LaValle has done something incredible. He's written a Lovecraft novel with themes of racial injustice at its center, turned Lovecraft's legacy on its head. And his real feat is that by giving his book a strong emotional center, he's surpassed Lovecraft.

I read a bit of Lovecraft, I appreciated the weird and the dread and the undercurrent of malevolence in his books, but I never felt like I could burrow myself into one and live in it. There's a coldness to Lovecraft. I don't know if LaValle wanted that same coldness. He certainly holds the reader at arm's length. But there is a big fat beating heart in this book no matter how careful and calculated it is. This is a book that is more about feelings than it is about Cthulu. It is more about shame and hatred and anger and what those feelings do to you than it is about the weird and supernatural.

This is my third LaValle book and I am consistently excited by his work. He does things no one else does. I don't know where his books will take me. And that's one of the highest compliments I can give.
Profile Image for Misty Marie Harms.
559 reviews417 followers
December 26, 2021
I have no idea what I just read, but alrighty then. Charles Tester hustles to put food on the table and pay the bills for him and his ailing father. One day while delivering a strange occult tome to an aging white woman in Queens, Tom opens a door to magic. I like the story, but have no clue what was going on. Maybe because it was too short. I will be puzzling this one out for awhile.
October 17, 2019
I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.

This little book felt like reading a shorter version of The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. Unfortunately, I didn't like that book very much and so I wasn't entirely satisfied with this one either. In my opinion, even though these books are, more or less explicitly, inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft, I don't think they can quite deliver like he does in one very specific point.

You see, when I read a book about occultism, mysteries of horrific other dimensions and unspoken horrors on unhearthly monsters; the premise makes my mind go wild with imagination on just how those horrors exactly look like. But, unfortunately, the big reveal is always less than the horror you imagined; and this is simply inevitable, as for the human mind the fear of the unknown is greater than the known, however horrible it might be. That is why Lovecraft, with his habit of leaving much to the imagination, is able to create in me a much bigger sense of unease than any explicit description could even cause. And that is exactly why this kind of books get me really gripped in the beginning, but usually disappoint me in the end. I appreciated the format of this one, and I am not saying this was a bad book by any means, just didn't quite deliver what it promised, in my very personal opinion.
Profile Image for Khalid Abdul-Mumin.
216 reviews101 followers
January 8, 2023
"“I bear a hell within me,” Black Tom growled. “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.”
“You’re a monster, then,” Malone said.
“I was made one.”"
Read: October 11th, 2022
Edit II: 01082023

A short and gripping tale that condenses so much within it. It is set in the Jazz era of the '20s (last century) where we follow 'Tommy' aka Black Tom, a hustler as he deals in the arcane and gets a mysterious job offer that seems too good to be true.

The plot is very interesting and it weaves elements of cosmic horror and otherness into a surrealistic narrative (told from two perspectives that keeps the story really fresh) that I found really engaging, enjoyable and highly entertaining to read. There are interdimensional eldritch gods and mysterious sexagenarian occult sorcerers aplenty. Very good writing. If this is what the sub-genre of 'new weird' has to offer then I'm absolutely in! Highly Recommended.
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 2 books13 followers
June 24, 2023
There has been backlash against H.P. Lovecraft in recent years, mostly due to the man's racism and other hateful views...which were, by many accounts, extreme even for his time. This leads to some conflicted feelings among fans of horror and fantasy. Without a doubt, Lovecraft was one of the 20th century's most influential and important writers of dark fiction. I read him quite a bit as a teenager, and enjoyed many of the stories; there was just something really, really fascinating about his work.

That said, I would have a hard time reading these tales now, knowing what we do about the man. As such, I was delighted by this novella by Victor LaValle, which does an amazing job of capturing the cosmic horror of Lovecraft's style while simultaneously offering a modern-day critique of that same work.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of The Horror at Red Hook, which is generally accepted to be one of HPL's most bigoted stories. I found LaValle's book to be fast-paced and exciting, and I really liked the character of Tommy Tester.

I would recommend this to anyone looking for an interesting and original take on Lovecraftian Horror. At the same time, I don't think it's necessary to have read Lovecraft's fiction in order to enjoy this (even though some familiarity might offer helpful context); the novella certainly stands on its own merits.
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