You can’t escape Lovecraft’s influence if you, like I, read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy/horror. But until now, I had never read any of Lovecraft’s works directly just interpretations of them by authors like Neil Gaiman. I was aware that he is considered problematic due to racist beliefs that even for his time were extreme but I wasn’t sure how much of that bled into his actual work. Well, thanks to my book club I got to find out firsthand. Our assignment this month was to read Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook” and then read the novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle.
“The Horror at Red Hook” is a relatively straightforward tale of how one policeman during turn of the century Brooklyn uncovers a disturbing plot by an aging and possibly crazy member of high society to wake Cthulhu. It’s a classic Lovecraftian tale, the horror elements were spot-on and despite some excessive flowery language the story was well-paced. What was jarring to me, as a modern reader, was how much the story hinged demonizing the residents of Red Hook , a ghettoized section of Brooklyn. Lovecraft took great pains to describe how debased the residents of this section of New York were, how the rampant crime and illegal immigrants of the neighborhood were a festering wound upon society. Lovecraft’s main antagonist set up his base of operations there because he (Lovecraft) viewed it as a place that most mimicked the hell Cthulhu should be awoken too. Broad generalizations about black people, Chinese and other immigrants are woven throughout these parts of the story. But while these groups helped the white antagonist work to achieve his goals there was never any written reason for why they would want to help raise Cthulhu.
Enter Victor LaValle and “The Ballad of Black Tom”. Here LaValle re-interprets the events “The Horror of Red Hook” and in the process, elevates and deepens the story above and beyond Lovecraft’s original tale. Told from the perspective of a black man, Charles “Tom” Tester, a two-bit grifter that’s just trying to get by as well as well as black man could during the early 19th century. The story opens with Tom being sucked into the world of the occult as he accepts what appears to be an easy gig well-paying gig playing guitar for an eccentric old rich guy. What develops from there is a story about being the other in a society that will never let you advance. Centering his story on Tom allows LaValle to construct a narrative that explains how the cruelty and indifference of racism that is hinted in Lovecraft’s original tale could drive an individual to seek out power from any source. Even if that source would cost them their soul and end the world. Like the movie “Get Out”, LaValle understands we don’t need the old gods to awake to experience horror, we simply need to turn a mirror to ourselves.