Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

[Tor Novella]
★★★★☆ Recommended

(Black Lovecraftian Horror) In 1924 Harlem, 20-year-old Tommy Tester plays bad jazz and runs minor scams. When an old man offers him $500 to play at his house, he knows there's a catch. It's just not what he expects. (27,800 words; Time: 1h:32m)

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Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2016.401 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: Tommy seeks justice for the wrongs done to him, and, at the cost of his own soul, he destroys civilization--slowly, via global warming. He was worthy because, unlike all the others, he didn't seek power; he only sought destruction. He pays the ultimate price--the loss of his life and his very soul--but he gets what he wants.

Suydam is the educated fool. He imagines he can somehow make a deal with the Sleeping King, but really lacks all understanding of what's really happening. In the first part of the story, he's a catalyst, and in the last part, he's a tool, but he thinks he's really in charge all the way up until he's dying.

Malone is the archetypal good-man-who-does-nothing. He's perfectly aware that Howard is doing wrong, and it bothers him a little, but he just goes along. He ought to want to stop Tommy, but what he really wants is knowledge. He too gets what he seeks, at a lesser price.

Lovecraft fans will find countless allusions to his Cthulhu mythos. There's a certain irony about a black author writing a Lovecraft-inspired story, given that Lovecraft was such an over-the-top racist that even his friends back in the 1920s complained about it. It's likely that the racist behavior of "Howard" (Lovecraft's actual first name) in the story is taken directly from some of Lovecraft's actual statements.

Con: There's no hint of light in this tale, no one to root for. Cthulhu comes out pretty well, but everyone else gets screwed.

Howard gets our blood boiling, but he's a bit of a caricature. Not only does he openly murder a harmless old man, but the local police, including Malone, back him up entirely--even though he's not a cop but just a private investigator, whom the police traditionally loathe. Yes, we know Lovecraft thought that way, but we also know that he was an extremist even for his own time.

Other Reviews: Search Web, GoodReads.com
Victor LaValle Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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4 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Repurposing Lovecraft's metaphor of the cthulhu mythos in order to criticise Lovecraft's own racism is a brilliant stroke. The issue I have with the story is that the narrative shift really throws me. It's probably necessary to see Tommy from the outside after he starts his descent, but I wish the story had stuck with him longer. Overall very good though.

  2. I think this story is a 4 to 5 rating.

    Awesome opening lines.

    You can get a free sample audio here from TOR - http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/audio-excerpts-the-ballad-of-black-tom-victor-lavalle-kevin-free/

    Or a free sample read here -http://www.tor.com/2016/01/19/excerpts-the-ballad-of-black-tom-victor-lavalle/

    I had a read and listen, and just had to get the whole story. Pretty creepy in the first third and gory in the last third. Real horror. Really well done.

    I do agree that the narrative shift does really throw you out of the story. I took a break at that point.

  3. I agree with RSR's ★★★★ rating. I loved the first half of the story from Tommy's POV. The second half from Malone's POV wasn't as good, maybe because he wasn't as well developed a character, and perhaps the plot was constrained by the original Lovecraft story it reimagines.

    I found the ending a bit confusing, though that seems to be a characteristic of Lovecraft's stories based on skimming a number of reviews on Goodreads. The author's post on Scalzi's blog helped some. I haven't read any Lovecraft -- and might not given the racism -- but after reading the latest Wild Cards novel High Stakes and this story, I'm now interested in modern takes of Lovecraft's dark realms.