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The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsConfession time: I dearly love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and I’m not even sorry. I particularly love them for that quality about them his detractors seem to hate the most: his verbose, antiquarian prose style, in which words pour out in a deluge of description all about the indescribable. It’s a style Neil Gaiman has referred to as a “clotted adjectival froth,” which is the kind of phrase you can only get away with saying if you talk like Neil Gaiman.

Of course, the criticism of Lovecraft that resounds most forcefully today has to do with his racism, which was intensely xenophobic even by the standards of his time, and which, if not in all cases, does find its way into his stories in enough examples to matter. His classic “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is all about the horrors (as he saw it) of race mixing. But perhaps the most reviled of his stories is “The Horror at Red Hook,” which appeared in Weird Tales in 1927. It’s the story of demonic doings taking place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, in which an Irish detective named Thomas Malone raids a squalid tenement to find a nightmarish hellscape in the basement. The story isn’t well-loved among even Lovecraft’s fans, and Lovecraft himself later disavowed it as rambling and not very good. But its degrading portrayal of Red Hook’s immigrant population a little more than subhuman mongrel hordes has left a lingering stink over the decades.

Now, one of the great things about art is that it isn’t simply there to provide us with mindless entertainment. At its best, art can be an act of dialogue, and this is what Victor LaValle has done with his novella, The Ballad of Black Tom. An African-American writer who grew up a fan of Lovecraft’s stories only to find himself coming to terms with the man’s racism as an adult, LaValle has channeled his “conflicted feelings,” as he describes them in the book’s dedication, into a cracking reboot of Lovecraft’s Red Hook tale that reframes the original’s racism into an indictment of the cultural norms of the day that validated it. Coming at a time when such depraved attitudes are once again finding purchase in too many areas of mainstream culture, it’s a response whose time is nigh.

LaValle keeps a number of Lovecraft’s original ideas, as well as his two main characters, Malone and Suydam, but gives everything a new context. For instance, those lowly immigrant mobs drawn to Suydam’s rituals in the original? Here, they’re just more victims of a privileged, wealthy white man’s manipulation, as Suydam plays upon their very real anger and frustrations in order to lure them into a situation from which only he intends to benefit.

LaValle’s protagonist is Tommy Tester, a young Harlem man with a minimal talent for the guitar but a knack for the arcane. In this world as in Lovecraft’s world, it is known to a select few people, and even taken for granted, that powers beyond human reckoning exist and that we’d do better to let sleeping things lie. And Tommy is one of those people. As the story opens, he’s on a well-paying job delivering a magical tome to a lady in Queens — but he’s carefully torn a page from it, because he knows the trouble that book can cause.

We follow Tommy through a 1920s Harlem that, on the one hand, feels vibrant and alive, but where on the other, not much is different today. Police think nothing of emptying their guns into unarmed black men and claiming self defense later. Tommy encounters Suydam, who offers him way too much money to play at an upcoming party at his mansion in Flatbush. Suydam, in turn, is a suspicious character being shadowed by Detective Malone, who is also one of those men sensitive to the presence of the otherworldly. Long story short, Tommy discovers that Suydam is pretty much a straight-up warlock, and that he plans to awaken a fearsome being called the Sleeping King to cleanse the world and make it new. But Tommy, as it turns out, has his own plans.

Where Lovecraft’s original story may have been tedious and rambling, LaValle’s is a tightly coiled spring that knows exactly when to unleash itself at full force. I’ve criticized some novellas in the past for attempting too much story in too short a space, but The Ballad of Black Tom works ideally just the length it is. It’s a story of injustice, on the one hand, and of righteous anger and vengefulness, but also one of regrets, and a lingering sadness that our world just can’t bring itself to be any other, better way than how it actually is. And it’s a story that works not because it disrespects or seeks to tear down Lovecraft’s horror legacy, but because it accepts the fact that often our heroes are broken people, and that what we need is a world where none of us have to be broken any more.