Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Just in Time for Halloween—The Ballad of Black Tom

Nameless terrors, sure, but what a great location!

While it’s true that Victor LaValle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM draws from the Cthulhu mythos, readers who are unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft’s work will have no trouble diving into this story.  From the start, LaValle establishes a world that is at once familiar and yet eerily suspect.  The characters, especially Thomas Tester, are wholly believable, understandable, and even relatable and the story is engaging throughout.

LaValle’s story of magic and horror is set in the mid-1920s in New York City, centered on Charles Thomas Tester. Tommy Tester, as he’s known for the first half of the book, is a jack-of-all-trades, straddling the line between con-man and likable rogue. He plays guitar, but not with any real skill and with no desire to learn more—only enough to make people think he’s a down-on-his-luck artist who is better than he appears. From time to time Tommy delves into the “weird” and while he isn’t wholly knowledgeable, he knows enough to be dangerous to himself and others. He is the perfect narrator to introduce readers to the life of Black Americans at the time, while also establishing the mystical that lays just beneath the surface.

When Tommy meets Robert Suydam, and is offered more money than he can make in a year to play at a private party, he knows he shouldn’t go.  He’s wholly right.  What Suydam is up to is nothing short of evil.  But in meeting Suydam, Tommy also runs afoul of two police officers, working as private detectives.  They warn Tommy off, yet Tommy is drawn in by his desire to be his own person, his curiosity and his greed.  As those worlds start to collide and events unfold, readers are treated to nothing short of magical—the dark kind where no one escapes unharmed.
A better Lovecraft than Lovecraft

LaValle creates characters that are wholly engaging. The pace and flow of the story makes this an engaging and memorable read.  LaValle takes H.P. Lovecraft’s world and makes it his own, without once shying away from all the issues that were prevalent in 1920s America just as they are today.

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM may have been inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but LaValle has made the world his own.  The magical realism and horror are both realistic and otherworldly, the plot moves quickly but is wholly character-driven.  LaValle has created a world that hopefully (scarily) should be visited again.

What horror books or Lovecraftian stories are your favorites?  Tell me in the comments below!

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