The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of Lovecraft’s short story, The Horror at Red Hook and like the best retellings it’s not necessary to have read original to appreciate it. Amusingly, though The Horror at Red Hook is one of Lovecraft’s stories that is divested from his Cthulhu mythos The Ballad of Black Tom works that story back into Cthulhu and used the Cthulhu mythos, with its racist beginnings, to explore racism in the US. It’s brilliant.
Thomas Tester is a conman, a street hustler, and a black man in 1924 New York City. He is, above almost all else, aware of the importance of his image and how to manipulate his image to get the results he wants. He uses this magic to support himself and his father. He meets the enigmatic Robert Suydam, a man who believes that the secrets of the universe can be found in the mythology of the new immigrants in the city, a philosophy later mirrored in detective Malone. This kind of condescending racism is just one of the many subtle ways that LaValle shows how terrible life is for Tommy Tester and the non-white people of New York City, to the point that when he says “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day” it is completely understandable.
I’m a casual fan of Lovecraft, I appreciate his contribution to the horror genre but I haven’t read a lot of his works. I do enjoy the Cthulhu mythos, and I appreciate how it has become a subdivision of the horror genre, to the point where I can say something is Lovecraftian in tone and people understand what I’m referencing. I think LaValle’s contribution to the continuing Cthulhu mythos is pretty amazing. Definitely check out this short novella. I’ll be keeping an eye on LaValle’s future works.