A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive. (…) What was indifference compared to malice?
“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.
I was not aware, until I finished The Ballad of Black Tom, that it was a critique of one of Lovecraft’s most racist stories, The Horror At Red Hook. Even after I found out, I did not want to read Lovecraft’s version, and only familiarized myself with the plot through Wikipedia. I am not sure to what extent not reading it has affected how I see The Ballad of Black Tom, but my review below is of the book as I read it –a book without the history I later found it had.
On reading the description of the book, I expected it to be one thing. On reading it, I found it to be very different from what I was expecting. I found a darker, scarier and much more troubling read.
Set in Harlem in 1924, the book begins with Tommy Tester delivering a strange book to a mysterious old woman in Queens. This action, earns him the (unwanted attention) of the rich and white Robert Suydam, a private investigator Howard, and a cop, Malone. Suydam invites Tommy to his house to play his guitar for some guests, and opens up a malicious new world to Tommy.
One one level, this book is about power. Suydam is so hungry for it that he is willing to sacrifice everything for it. Howard wields his power with disgusting certainty and cruelty. Malone, like Suydam, seeks power too, but chooses to do so by remaining invisible until Tom forces his hand. Where Suydam seeks to be the “white saviour”, Malone seeks only to steal from the powerless, but both believe that only they can transform the knowledge into real power. In this way, Suydam and Malone are one and the same.
Tom on the other hand is powerless, and he knows it. The first half of the book highlights this often, and the parallels to the discussion around the #BlackLivesMatter movement are striking. It is depressing to know that while everything has changed, everything has still remained the same.
This is probably the reason that the depiction of Tom in the second half doesn’t sit right with me. He is disillusioned with power and yet, he grabs it for himself, but what he gets is not true power but a debased, degraded mutation of power. I wish this were different. I wish Tom had got a better deal. In my opinion, what Tom becomes only furthers negative stereotypes, and this was disappointing.
On another level this novella is about ignorance,fear and hate. LaValle juxtaposes Suydam’s fear of the cosmic unknown with the white fear of Red Hook’s inhabitants, whose appearance and practices are strange to them. In both cases, fear prevents knowledge from being realized, contributing to hate arising as a monster. The idea of ignorance begetting fear and hate is seen also with Tom, Otis and the Victoria Society. Until Tom and Otis visit the Victoria Society and see for themselves that there is nothing to fear, they remain suspicious of Carribeans and view them as best avoided.
The Ballad of Black Tom is a powerful book, very relevant to our times. It’s small size is misleading as it is by no means a light read. It is heavy with ideas and emotions. In fact, there was a point where I nearly gave up on reading it because it took so much out of me emotionally. I picked it up again, hoping the worst was over, and once again was cheated. It is still however, a beautiful book.
Its beauty lies in revealing the truth, that cosmic dread is nothing compared to the fear of fellow humans. That bigger monsters lie within us than the most imaginative of writers can create.
I borrowed this book from my local library and chose to review it without any request for the same on the part of the publisher/author.
I read this book for the #DSFFBookClub, in which we discuss speculative written by or about PoC or LGBTQ. We can be found on Twitter with the hashtag #DSFFBookClub and on goodreads here:https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/191365-diverse-sff-book-club.
I found this interview of LaValle which discusses why he wrote The Ballad of Black Tom the way he did, and why Lovecraft may have written The Horror At Red Hook like he did. It helped me gain some perspective on both these stories.
Janani’s review at The Shrinkette
Naz’s review at Read Diverse Books
Silicon’s review at Silicon of the Internet