Although some in the horror community struggle to admit it, Lovecraft, for all his brilliance, was also a racist. I’ve written about it before on this site, and it’s a side of the man we should not shy away from. Victor LaVelle has done more than confront it; he’s applied his considerable talent to turn one of Lovecraft’s most troubling–and not in a good way–stories into something far more compelling.
The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of Lovecraft’s story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” The story derives directly from the xenophobia that Lovecraft’s time in New York City only served to intensify. It’s considered one of Lovecraft’s worst stories (even Lovecraft panned it), and one might think it a strange choice for basing a modern retelling. But therein lies LaVelle’s genius. He takes a story born in racial hatred and turns it on its head. The Synopsis:
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?
If you’ve read The Horror at Red Hook, you know the basic story. Detective Malone plays a role here, but he is not the central character. Neither is Robert Suydam. For it is Tester, despised because of his race, who ultimately has the power to raise the Old Ones. But more importantly, it is he who understands them, understands what is it is to be an outcast, and understands the desire to form a new world. He could stop them, too, but after living a life of the worst kind of abuse at the hands of a society that hates him, will he bother?
There is so much to enjoy about The Ballad of Black Tom that I scare believe I could do it justice. For all the greatness of Lovecraft, it’s a reminder of what he could have accomplished if he’d been able to overcome his worst tendencies.