“The Ballad Of Black Tom” is a powerful novella which appropriates H, P, Lovecraft’s occult lore and ancient gods and places a young black man at the centre of the story.
I’m not a Lovecraft fan but I was fascinated by the way Victor LaValle took possession and Lovecraft’s world and used it to explore a black man’s rage at how he and his father are treated by the white men.
In less than 150 pages, we follow Charles Thomas Tester’s transformation from a savvy twenty-year-old hustler with a passing knowledge of the occult and a flair for dissembling to Black Tom, a bringer of death and a herald of doom. The means for this transformation comes from occult knowledge provided acquired from the rich power-hungry white people who buy his time. The motive for the transformation comes from the contempt and violence he receives from the white men around him.
The text is vivid and full of energy. LaValle perfectly captures the sense of threat a lone black man experiences when venturing outside of Harlem. The scene where Tester learns of the brutal act of violence by a white private detective is chilling and makes a perfect trigger for his transformation into Black Tom.
Towards the end of the novella, Tester reflects on his own transformation into a monster by the way in which white people saw him, saying of white people:
“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!”
He also recognises that his rage has cost him his connection with his own community and stripped him of his humanity.
H. P. Lovecraft’s racism is well known so it interested me that the racist white private detective’s surname is Howard, which was Lovecraft’s first name.
I read “The Ballad Of Black Tom” for the Diverse Voices square for Halloween Bingo