August’s book of the month for the #DSFFBookClub was The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, which is a direct response and subversion of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Horror at Red Hook. To fully appreciate and understand LaValle’s novella, I think it’s important that one reads Red Hook. However, you will not have any fun while reading it. Not only is Red Hook one of Lovecraft’s least interesting and impressive stories, it’s also one of his most troubling, controversial, and downright racist. It’s not his worst, but it’s still pretty egregiously offensive.
The Horror at Red Hook was the first Lovecraft story I have ever read and it will likely be my last. I’m sure he has done some great work (that’s what I hear?) and people are enjoying it to this day, but this one particular story was too problematic for me. Also, I was no impressed by the writing and plot itself wasn’t much fun to follow. I was bored and didn’t care about any of the characters. But reading Red Hook first gave me a level appreciation for The Ballad of Black Tom that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t read it in that context. So, I do recommend at least reading a summary or a discussion post on Red Hook.
Why was The Horror at Red Hook so problematic?
- It renders plain what Lovecraft considered to be a “horror” and what he’s afraid of: namely immigrants and poor people, but immigrants who don’t speak English in particular and people of color in general.
- One never gets the impression that he considers poor immigrants and people of color to be human beings. As an immigrant and person of color myself, why would I want to read someone who couldn’t see my humanity?
- It suggests that anyone who isn’t white and shares his culture must be evil and colluding behind closed-doors doing something vile and sinister, like a blood sacrifice.
How does The Ballad of Black Tom subvert Lovecraft’s story?
LaValle brings humanity to the people that Lovecraft refused to or could not see as human. While I was reading Red Hook, his description of the people who inhabit the neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn was unsettling and baffling. Only a mind with a warped and highly prejudiced perception of reality could produce the paragraph below about any group of people:
“From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of a hundred dialects assail the sky. Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world of the contagion.”
“Swarthy, sin-pitted faces”? What an old and tired racist stereotype! Oh, wait, Lovecraft IS an old and tired racist stereotype. Actually, he’s the archetype. Associating sin and guilt with dark skin is a racist trope that should never have been started and needed to be eradicated centuries ago.
LaValle grew up reading Lovecraft’s work and admires the man’s imagination, but he has many conflicting feelings as well that are entirely justified and relatable. When he read his work as a kid, he didn’t realize how problematic and racist it was until he grew older, and by that point he had already read Lovecraft’s entire body of work. So writing The Ballad of Black Tom was personal for him because Lovecraft’s stories were hugely influential during his formative years as a reader.
This novella is a powerful criticism and response to Red Hook‘s many problems. It is not a complete reversal of the narrative and some readers may still find aspects of this retelling problematic, but I think intention and context matters. The Ballad of Black Tom was written as historical fiction that should be read from a modern perspective and also as subversion of Lovecraft’s work. The story is a period piece, so some of the language may be a little jarring and the prejudice and racism you will see throughout may make you uncomfortable. But it is honest and appropriate.
Some may argue that Tom’s character could have been depicted in a more positive light because there is a massive amount of literature that depicts black grief, pain, and villainization. So did we need another book that does the same thing? Was LaValle’s retelling necessary at all or does it add unnecessarily to the literature centered on black suffering? I have conflicted feelings about this but ultimately feel that the story as it was written has value because Tom is flawed, but reacts realistically to the hostile environment around him.
Meet Charles Thomas Tester
That’s his given name, or as everyone calls him, Tommy Tester. And much later in the story he will come to be known as the titular “Black Tom.” Tommy is a young man who likes to dress sharply, like a bluesman, and carries a guitar case to trick people into thinking he is actually a great guitar player and musician. He looks the part and can pretend to play decently for a while, but he’s actually not very good. He’s just an illusionist and plays the part well, especially around white people who see a black man in a suit with a guitar case and expect him to fit a specific role. I liked that LaValle brought Tom to life this way, which is one way he subverted Red Hook. It would have never occurred to Lovecraft to write a black man in such a nuanced way.
But as the story progresses, we see a darker and more sinister side of Tom that is brought on by witnessing the horrific and callous murder of his father by police. This scene was one of the most powerful in the story because it was too real. A black man dying for no reason at all at the hands of police is far too familiar even today. This tragic event changes Tommy and drives him to collaborate with the dastardly Robert Duynam, who sees himself as a kind of white savior for the poor and immigrant communities of Brooklyn. Tommy recognizes Duynam’s power and eventually uses his proximity to that power to achieve his own ends.
I won’t spoil what Tommy does with this power, but it is dark and unsettling. The inhumanity and injustice that he witnessed drove him to this point, I do understand that, but it’s painful to see yet another story of person of color, but of a black man specifically, turn out this way. Just read this exchange between Tommy and his friend after Tommy commits the monstrous act near the end of the story.
“I was a good man, right? I mean I wasn’t like my father, but I never did people wrong. Not truly.”
“No, you didn’t,” Buckeye said, looking his old friend directly in the eye. “You were always good people. Still are.”
Black Tom smiled faintly but shook his head. “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.”
Despite how troubling this depiction of Tommy was, his motivations made a lot of sense and I’m having a hard time thinking of an alternate ending that would have been satisfactory and true to Tommy’s character and the anger he justifiably felt. Also, the story is horror, so its brutality and unsettling nature is part of what makes it fit in the genre. I do trust LaValle’s judgment and his intentions. I don’t think he wrote a monstrous black character deliberately or with malice. He wrote Tommy, a man whose journey to such a point was realistic and sympathetic, which again is the ultimate subversion to Lovecraft’s entire body of work.
Did you read The Ballad of Black Tom for the #DSFFBookClub or on your own? In what ways did you think it subverted Lovecraft’s story? Did you find any aspects of it problematic? I’d love to discuss this further! Let me know in the comments.
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