The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

by Cam N. Coulter

Posted on August 20, 2016 reading, 2016.

Last year, I read “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft. I read it, and I understood all the buzz around Lovecraft. His style of cosmic horror was addicting. Horror as a genre typically doesn’t appeal to me because I’m not much for violence or gore, but Lovecraft’s style of horror resonated perfectly with me.

That said, “The Call of Cthulhu” is profoundly patriarchal and racist. While I read it, this upset me and took me out of the narrative. Instead of being scared during certain scenes, I chuckled at the terror Lovecraft surely felt toward non-whites. I wanted to return to Lovecraft for his awesome style of horror, but I hesitated, knowing that I would again encounter his ridiculous racism, racism which worsens the story as a whole and is frankly not enjoyable to read.

So The Ballad of Black Tom felt like a gift from God. Start with Lovecraft, toss out the racism, replace it with sophisticated racial commentary, and you’ve got The Ballad of Black Tom. It’s beautiful. It’s a real treat. I hesitate to read more Lovecraft because his racism is such a turn-off, but I already feel like I need to re-read LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom so that I can more fully appreciate it’s racial commentary. Honestly, it’s brilliant. This novella deserves to be studied in literature and ethnic studies classes.

Brilliant, sophisticated racial commentary aside, the horror in the novella succeeds as well. There’s a great slow, creeping build to a fabulous scene at the half-way point. After the half-way point, I doubted whether the ending would carry the horrific pay-off for which I had hoped. Fortunately, it delivered. Maybe I just haven’t read enough horror, but I found LaValle’s climax to be original and deeply unsettling.

If Victor LaValle reimagines another Lovecraft story, I’m buying it.

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Victor LaValle