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People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?


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People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

30 review for The Ballad of Black Tom

  1. 4 out of 5

    Elena May

    Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Full disclaimer: I’m not familiar with Lovecraft’s works. I’ve read quite a bit about him but never read his actual writing. Fans will probably perceive this differently, but from my newbie point of view, this was an atmospheric, pleasantly weird page-turner that easily stood on its own. I have to admit I liked the historical fiction eleme Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Full disclaimer: I’m not familiar with Lovecraft’s works. I’ve read quite a bit about him but never read his actual writing. Fans will probably perceive this differently, but from my newbie point of view, this was an atmospheric, pleasantly weird page-turner that easily stood on its own. I have to admit I liked the historical fiction elements much more than the fantasy parts. We see this richly described and absolutely beautiful version of 1920s Harlem through Thomas Tester’s eyes: Walking through Harlem first thing in the morning was like being a single drop of blood inside an enormous body that was waking up. Brick and mortar, elevated train tracks, and miles of underground pipe, this city lived; day and night it thrived. Before Thomas Tester goes through a creepy transformation, he can see beauty in everything despite the poverty and oppression . Seeing Harlem through his eyes, I also found it charming. And that’s unusual – in the recent years, I’ve lost my ability to find charm in busy, crowded cities. When I first visited NYC, I thought it was amazing and loved how alive it was. But then, I spent some time in very overcrowded places, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, and then over a year in London, and now I’d choose a quiet place where you can hear the birds singing over a crowded metropolis on any day. And yet, I read this and I loved 1920s Harlem. And then we get Cthulhu... Yeah... I admit I never got the appeal. The fantasy elements aren’t as impressive as the historical. There isn’t much world-building as the book is essentially a Lovecraft fanfic, so the mythos is already there. I’m not the best judge on how well that was done, but still some things didn’t make sense. A mysterious old lady, who is hinted to be a powerful non-human entity, goes through a lot of trouble to get The Supreme Alphabet, and then never seems to use it. The Alphabet has been in her possession for a week when she is easily defeated and doesn’t seem to put in any struggle. Also, our protagonist, Thomas Tester / Black Tom, becomes powerful off-screen. I would have preferred to see how he gets there. The book’s greatest strength seems to be that it takes the incredibly racist source material and creates a critical retelling. Indeed, in some ways The Ballad of Black Tom tackles the topics of racism, prejudice, and police brutality in the US really well. It may all seem a bit cartoonish and heavy-handed at first, but not in the way that makes readers pat themselves on the back and say, “Well done! It was sooo bad back then, but we don’t have these problems anymore!” On the contrary – while we see that it was indeed horrible back then, the parallels to what is happening nowadays are clear and uncomfortable. The real horror is that almost a hundred year later, things haven’t changed all that much. But this is also what bothers me the most about this book. It tries to be a reaction to Lovecraft’s racism, but at the same time it creates an exoticised, mystical, violent, and dehumanized image of immigrants. Robert Suydam , the rich white man who plans to summon Cthulhu, invites a group of fifty recent immigrants he plans to use as allies: Tester knew how to recognize a room full of roughnecks. This bunch qualified. Suydam had haunted waterfronts and back alleys to find this crew of cutthroats. The kind of place Tommy imagined the Victoria Society would be was what these criminals called home sweet home. We never hear them speak. We never learn anything about their lives or even learn their names. All we see is their reaction to Robert Suydam’s plan to destroy the world as we know it and rise from the ashes: They shouted back. They clapped each other on the shoulders. Founding fathers of a new nation, or even better, a world now theirs to administer and control. ALL OF THEM??? Not a single one questions the plan? Not a single one disagrees? They are an indistinguishable, monolithic block, and the only one who stands out is Thomas Tester – the one born and raised in the US. While immigrants are mentioned all over the book, not a single one ever speaks. The only kind of exceptions are when a woman says something in a language the detective doesn’t understand (so we are practically told she speaks, but not what she says) and when Thomas Tester’s friend remembers two brothers from Fiji, long dead, who mentioned Cthulhu. Hmmmm. Fiji has a rich and original mythology, and all of this is erased and replaced by Lovecraft’s creations. Not cool. I also have to mention that there are no female characters in this book (and, no, I’m not going to call the non-human entity that barely speaks or the nameless witness “characters.”) Since the majority of main characters could have been gender-swapped easily, this skewed all-male world in an urban setting appears to be the author’s choice, for whatever reason. Overall, while not perfect, the novella is fun, fast-paced and thought-provoking . Readers, unfamiliar with Lovecraft, can still understand and appreciate it. Perhaps Lovecraft fans will enjoy it even more. I read this book as a part of my goal to read all Hugo finalists.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Edward Lorn

    Even before I found out Lovecraft was a humongous shitstain of a human being, I didn't like the way he wrote. His prose is a bit too antiquated for my tastes. So when I found out he hated all skin tones darker than Elmer's-glue, it didn't bother me because I already didn't like the guy. Am I dumb enough to think all his fans must be racist because he was? No. I know plenty of radically non-racist individuals who love his stuff. These folks can look past the artist to appreciate the mythos he cre Even before I found out Lovecraft was a humongous shitstain of a human being, I didn't like the way he wrote. His prose is a bit too antiquated for my tastes. So when I found out he hated all skin tones darker than Elmer's-glue, it didn't bother me because I already didn't like the guy. Am I dumb enough to think all his fans must be racist because he was? No. I know plenty of radically non-racist individuals who love his stuff. These folks can look past the artist to appreciate the mythos he created. Good on them. The problem for me is, I'm not even a fan of his mythos. Squid-faced gods and monsters so ugly the author can't be bothered to describe them never have done much for me. It's all too easy to say, "Oh, snap! That thing is so scurry my mind can't even wrap around it, yo!" I wish all of us could get away with that; describing everything as too scary to describe. It would make being a horror author much easier. So why did I read this? Well, Gregor Xane read it and shared with me the epigraph, which reads, "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings." You see, Victor LaValle is a mixed dude who grew up reading Lovecraft. When LaValle was in his teens, he found out about Lovecraft's extreme racism, but decided to play with the old Aryan's mythos anyway. I respect that. The idea of the offendee reimagining an offender's work piqued my interest. Kinda like what would happen if the crew over at Kidz Bop paid tribute to Michael Jackson. (Too soon?) Anyfuck, that's why I read it. And I'm glad I did, because this motherfucker was damn good. I also find it hilarious on several levels that LaValle does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft did Lovecraft. The Ballad of Black Tom is first told from the POV of Tommy Tester, a dude who becomes the titular Black Tom. At exactly the halfway point, the POV switches to a detective named Malone. While Tom's section is more of an introduction, Malone's section brings home the creepy, gory bacon. The description of Ma Att's shadow/tail/ whatever-the-fuck was so subtle and well done, it actually raised gooseflesh on my forearms. I honestly cannot remember the last time a simple grouping of words affected me physically. I am in awe. LaValle nailed that scene. I can say, truthfully, it's in my top ten scenes ever written. The descriptions of the monster under the water and the low note played throughout the piece were equally well written. As for the story itself? It's definitely my cuppa tea. A slow burn that goes into a bit of what-the-fuckery before the ending leaves our protagonist forever changed. I dug the fuck out of this little book and I want more. In summation: The Ballad of Black Tom is now my forerunner for Novella of the Year 2016. I'll be looking for more LaValle, as this one has officially made me a fan. Final Judgment: Eye opening. (Gregor Xane shared this link with me after I read the book. I suggest you read it too, you know, AFTER you read this story. It's Victor LaValle explaining why he tackled this particular story and its characters. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/02/17...)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    yeah, so anyway, if any of u horror lovers out there haven't read this yet DO IT. yeah, so anyway, if any of u horror lovers out there haven't read this yet DO IT.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Emily (Books with Emily Fox)

    I don't know what I was expecting but certainly not that.... in a good way! I have a complicated relationship which shorter books. Too often I feel dissatisfied with them as they're simply missing something... probably content. It wasn't the case at all with the dark fantasy set in New York. A lot of people compare it to Lovecraft, which I have yet to read but I'm now looking forward to. Would recommend! I don't know what I was expecting but certainly not that.... in a good way! I have a complicated relationship which shorter books. Too often I feel dissatisfied with them as they're simply missing something... probably content. It wasn't the case at all with the dark fantasy set in New York. A lot of people compare it to Lovecraft, which I have yet to read but I'm now looking forward to. Would recommend!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin

    3.5 Okay. I have never read Lovecraft's Cthulhu. I want to but there are so many different editions I don't know which one is the best. This book is supposed to be referenced but I wouldn't know. There is one quote from the book: Malone finally heard the last words Black Tom whispered down in the basement. I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day. I was a little bored with the book in the beginning because I couldn't figure out what was going on, but after awhile it clicked (somewhat) and it 3.5 Okay. I have never read Lovecraft's Cthulhu. I want to but there are so many different editions I don't know which one is the best. This book is supposed to be referenced but I wouldn't know. There is one quote from the book: Malone finally heard the last words Black Tom whispered down in the basement. I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day. I was a little bored with the book in the beginning because I couldn't figure out what was going on, but after awhile it clicked (somewhat) and it was great. The scene down in the basement, my favorite! I loved Black Tom himself! Once again if again if anyone can give me some good rec's to the best Cthulhu book I would greatly appreciate it 😊 Oh, and put them under the comments because I have GR book recs disabled. I only see a book review from there if I'm going to read that particular book. Thanks. Mel ❤️

  6. 4 out of 5

    Karl

    It seems to be my month for trying new authors not read prior, and also I noticed all of the good press, here on GR, from friends and others, so I thought I would give “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle a go. I read the book in one sitting, and perhaps TMI, didn’t even take a bathroom break. This should say something about author Victor LaValle’s ability to capture a reader and keep him enthralled. The book begins by telling a story about a young black street hustler in the 1920’s New York It seems to be my month for trying new authors not read prior, and also I noticed all of the good press, here on GR, from friends and others, so I thought I would give “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle a go. I read the book in one sitting, and perhaps TMI, didn’t even take a bathroom break. This should say something about author Victor LaValle’s ability to capture a reader and keep him enthralled. The book begins by telling a story about a young black street hustler in the 1920’s New York street and music scene. Mr. LaValle introduces a bit of tension and begins to incorporate aspects of Cosmic Evil and it’s relation to our main character. This brought about a kind of ha ha moment as I asked myself. “Why does the evil so often arrive in the form of a book?” At this point we are switched POV characters to a New York policeman who happens to be interested in the worlds underbelly of sinister evil itself. Then all hell breaks loose as our Cthulhu tries to enter our world through an opened gateway and wreaks havoc with New York’s finest and a slew of anti-aircraft weapons. Mr. Victor LaValle manages to pull the whole thing off with style and grace, thus making it necessary to add to my book collection more of this authors creations.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dan Schwent

    Tommy Tester is a hustler, doing what he has to to make ends meet and support his ailing father. When he meets Robert Suydam, things will never be the same... I've always been a bigger fan of things inspired by H.P. Lovecraft than the man's actual work. It's certainly been a good few months for H.P. Lovecraft-inspired fiction for me. First, there was Carter & Lovecraft, then Lovecraft Country, and now this novella, the Ballad of Black Tom. Victor LaValle has taken The Horror at Red Hook, called Lo Tommy Tester is a hustler, doing what he has to to make ends meet and support his ailing father. When he meets Robert Suydam, things will never be the same... I've always been a bigger fan of things inspired by H.P. Lovecraft than the man's actual work. It's certainly been a good few months for H.P. Lovecraft-inspired fiction for me. First, there was Carter & Lovecraft, then Lovecraft Country, and now this novella, the Ballad of Black Tom. Victor LaValle has taken The Horror at Red Hook, called Lovecraft's most racist book by some, and turned it inside out. Tommy Tester delivers a magical tome to an old woman, runs afoul of two detectives, and meets up with an old man bent on waking The Sleeping King from his dead and dreaming slumber. Needless to say, a lot happens in this slim book. There was a viewpoint shift about halfway through. While I didn't think Malone was as interesting as Black Tom, the story couldn't have been told without him. LaValle does a fantastic job of capturing the Lovecraftian flavor of The Horror at Red Hook and makes it his own. I loved the ending of this book. Hell, I devoured the whole thing in one sitting. 4.5 out of 5 stars. I'll be watching Victor LaValle with great interest.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Kelsey

    “Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!” A story juxtaposing Lovecraftian mythology against the racism and inequality of 1920s New York is so deliciously poetic; it left me amazed that no one had thought of it before now. I love that this constant inequality ends up being reason enough to justify drastic, desperate action to bring about its end, by dealing with forces the protagonist doesn’t fully understand, but “Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!” A story juxtaposing Lovecraftian mythology against the racism and inequality of 1920s New York is so deliciously poetic; it left me amazed that no one had thought of it before now. I love that this constant inequality ends up being reason enough to justify drastic, desperate action to bring about its end, by dealing with forces the protagonist doesn’t fully understand, but welcomes wholeheartedly. Thoroughly enjoyable.

  9. 5 out of 5

    carol.

    Nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and Shirley Jackson Awards,* The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine little novella, made accessible to horror dilettantes by the graciousness of Tor.com. Set in New York City in the 1920s, it is apparently the author's answer to a more than vaguely racist Lovecraft classic where he lamented all those immigrants in NYC. https://www.tor.com/2015/03/03/lovecr... For me, some transitions felt extremely choppy, and now that I read an analysis of the source material, my suspicio Nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and Shirley Jackson Awards,* The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine little novella, made accessible to horror dilettantes by the graciousness of Tor.com. Set in New York City in the 1920s, it is apparently the author's answer to a more than vaguely racist Lovecraft classic where he lamented all those immigrants in NYC. https://www.tor.com/2015/03/03/lovecr... For me, some transitions felt extremely choppy, and now that I read an analysis of the source material, my suspicion is that LaValle was hewing too closely to the original. When I was pondering how what I would say in my review, I was thinking about characterization and trying to pinpoint if that was the problem, but it wasn't, not really--the characters felt very real to me, well drawn at that moment in time. It's just that their personalities as the story evolved didn't seem congruent. The more I thought on it, the more dissatisfied I became; I believed Tom's somewhat easy-going con-man approach, the earnestness of his father, the fanaticism of the older white dude. So it wasn't a character creation issue. But once I understood that LaValle was trying to force his characters to follow--and yet subvert--the original, it made sense. Marlow didn't make much sense to me at all, but I think we can lay that at Lovecraft's feet. Atmosphere is well-crafted. LaValle definitely captures a sense of time period, and then the eerie, especially the visits to the elderly woman, and then the bloody violence. The party of thugs didn't make sense, but again--Lovecraft. I guess that's the problem with parodies/spoofs/riffs: the failings of the source material. The writing is solid and the imagery is vivid. Overall, worth reading if you are a fan of Lovecraftian horror**, or bloody folk tales, or revenge fantasies.  __________________________________________________ *I'll leave off mentioning the GR Choice Awards, because this site as a conglomerate has terrible taste. Not you people, of course. All the other ones who seem to think Pierce Brown is the only one in the world that can write Sci-Fi, and J.K. Rowling, Fantasy. I won't speak on Stephen King and Horror because I'm not qualified*** **Brief side rant on Lovecraft: I am annoyed by his writing. It's cumbersome, florid, and dated. Just because there are otherworldly beings that want to eat the human race alive doesn't mean the dude gets a whole genre in his name. Otherwise we should call everything that has monsters wanting to be men, Shelley-Horror (I was going to go for 'Shelleyian,' but phonetically, that sounds too much like Shelley-Ann). Doesn't work, does it? I cry genre sexism! ***See my my review of The Stand.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Char

    4.5 stars! “Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.” In The Ballad of Black Tom we have a Lovecraftian novella, written by a phenomenal black writer. It's set in the 20's which was not exactly the best time to be a black person in this country. LaValle has taken the Lovecraft story "The Horror at Red Hook" and turned it on its head. To that I say, Bravo!! As a blues fan, I'll add an extra BRAVO for the Son House lyrics. "Don't you mind p 4.5 stars! “Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.” In The Ballad of Black Tom we have a Lovecraftian novella, written by a phenomenal black writer. It's set in the 20's which was not exactly the best time to be a black person in this country. LaValle has taken the Lovecraft story "The Horror at Red Hook" and turned it on its head. To that I say, Bravo!! As a blues fan, I'll add an extra BRAVO for the Son House lyrics. "Don't you mind people grinning in your face?" Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I do. My highest recommendation!

  11. 4 out of 5

    karen

    although lovecraft hails from the great state of rhode island and providence plantations, and we have few enough literary feathers in our tiny hat (and because there are apparently rules about who can be claimed and who cannot, and cormac mccarthy’s moving to memphis from his providence birthplace at four years old - an age where he was basically luggage and certainly not choosing to leave the ocean state behind, nonetheless renders him ineligible to be counted as one of us), i have never been a although lovecraft hails from the great state of rhode island and providence plantations, and we have few enough literary feathers in our tiny hat (and because there are apparently rules about who can be claimed and who cannot, and cormac mccarthy’s moving to memphis from his providence birthplace at four years old - an age where he was basically luggage and certainly not choosing to leave the ocean state behind, nonetheless renders him ineligible to be counted as one of us), i have never been a lovecraft fan. and wouldn’t it be commendable if i could claim to be all aglow with high-minded outrage, disliking him on principle, finding his racist and misogynistic views so unacceptable that they caused me to boycott his work in an admirable, if somewhat smug, demonstration of righteousness? but that ain’t even it. i tried reading him when i was, like, twelve, and i just found it boring and cheesy and the horror equivalent of panning away from the romantic leads just before they give in to their passion in a very naked way. everything was suggested, occluded, and i wanted to see the good bloody stuff, thank you very much. but as it happens, apart from writing boring-ass stories, lovecraft was a super-douche. (and by all accounts, cormac mccarthy is a professional, decent, and humble gentleman, so you’re welcome, tennessee) this book is lavalle’s reworking of lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, which is apparently considered to be lovecraft’s “most racist ever,” despite the existence of his poem On the Creation of Niggers, which goes a little something like this: When, long ago, the gods created Earth In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth. The beasts for lesser parts were next designed; Yet were they too remote from humankind. To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man, Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan. A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure, Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger. that is stunningly toxic, but at least it is very short. if The Horror at Red Hook is somehow even more racist and also longer and probably also filled with his brand of “dude, this horror i’m writing about is so horrifying, i can’t even tell you about it. seriously. it would blow your mind too much. just trust me -it is super scary wwwwOOOoooo…,” well, i’m happy to avoid it. all of this to say that i have no clue how this novella functions as a response to or a reworking of the original. all i know is that i enjoyed lavalle’s writing, particularly the way he scrapped that turgid lovecraftian vocabulary, and chose to employ a modified version of lovecraft’s inexpressible horror, where the horror is at least partially expressed; described enough so it retains a sense of mystery without leaving the reader with nothing. bonus points for name-dropping the fine little rhody towns of pascoag and chepachet, which were mentioned in the source material, so no biggie there (yeah, i researched this read the wikipedia page, what?), but for ALSO mentioning woonsocket, the location of the hospital in which i first drew breath. i don’t know what is happening there, but it seems about right. to conclude: h.p. lovecraft - an unpleasant man with a gigantic head buried in the cemetery where i used to smoke pot and take gothy pictures. victor lavalle - a man from queens (represent!) who seems quite affable and counters lovecraft's bullshit with this book and a photograph i am calling "the horror at red tongue..." come to my blog!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Justin Tate

    Didn't work for me, unfortunately. I admire the idea of interacting with the good and bad of Lovecraft, and the novel probably does work as creative literary criticism, but since I'm not that interested in Lovecraft I think I missed a lot of the wit. As a stand alone story I struggled to connect with the characters or feel any sense of awe or fear when the beasties show up. For the most part, the mystical portions seem to show up just for the sake of being monstrous and doesn't add to the story. Didn't work for me, unfortunately. I admire the idea of interacting with the good and bad of Lovecraft, and the novel probably does work as creative literary criticism, but since I'm not that interested in Lovecraft I think I missed a lot of the wit. As a stand alone story I struggled to connect with the characters or feel any sense of awe or fear when the beasties show up. For the most part, the mystical portions seem to show up just for the sake of being monstrous and doesn't add to the story. The writing is good, though. I'll probably pick up something else by LaValle eventually.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Philip

    2.5ish stars A weird, creepy, enjoyable little book. Equal parts historical fiction and horror, and more than just the natural horror of the historical setting. LaValle provides a confident, well-written commentary on racism which, indeed, is dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft, infamously racist himself, and the man whose work this is based on: For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings Very atmospheric and strange, but a little too unfocused and murky with characters too distant to be particula 2.5ish stars A weird, creepy, enjoyable little book. Equal parts historical fiction and horror, and more than just the natural horror of the historical setting. LaValle provides a confident, well-written commentary on racism which, indeed, is dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft, infamously racist himself, and the man whose work this is based on: For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings Very atmospheric and strange, but a little too unfocused and murky with characters too distant to be particularly fascinating. I wouldn't have minded a little more book. I doubt it will stay with me. This might be more significant and entertaining after reading The Horror at Red Hook which this is apparently more or less a re-imagining of.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    A wondrous modern fable, The Ballad of Black Tom is the story of Charles Thomas Tester, a small time hustler in New York in the 1920s. He deals in magic and helps his poor, crippled father live as comfortably as possible. Soon he meets someone who promises riches and power, but what does Tom have to give up to get these riches?

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bradley

    Nominated for '17 Hugos, I had to take it on, but like almost all of the stories nominated this year, I'm having a grand ole time. This is a traditional tale of Cthulhu, only it's a damn sight less racist and the prose is as smooth as gin. It also doesn't fear to go the route of humanizing and demonizing at the very same time. Anti-hero? Oh, yes, please. Tommy is a real treat. I even got around to loving the detective. :) Harlem in the 20's was a special time, and even a man with no musical talent Nominated for '17 Hugos, I had to take it on, but like almost all of the stories nominated this year, I'm having a grand ole time. This is a traditional tale of Cthulhu, only it's a damn sight less racist and the prose is as smooth as gin. It also doesn't fear to go the route of humanizing and demonizing at the very same time. Anti-hero? Oh, yes, please. Tommy is a real treat. I even got around to loving the detective. :) Harlem in the 20's was a special time, and even a man with no musical talent could still make a living as a trickster with a guitar. :) The fantasy elements sneaks up on you within the lush period, and before we know it, we've gone from Gaimanish right to Lovecraft, and then right back to an introspective horror at what had been wrought. :) Totally delightful, very wicked. :)

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lyn

    Amongst the unnamable and innumerable legion of books and stories who have been inspired by HP Lovecraft, a thoughtful reader can make divisions into “fan lit” in the lower shelves, akin to the discount whiskies and blended Scotches, to the middle shelves of Kentucky bourbons and Tennessee whiskies (Jack and George) with the motivated stand-alone stories paying subtle tribute, to the top shelf single malt Scotch and single barrels of truly amazing works who have used Lovecraft as a starting off Amongst the unnamable and innumerable legion of books and stories who have been inspired by HP Lovecraft, a thoughtful reader can make divisions into “fan lit” in the lower shelves, akin to the discount whiskies and blended Scotches, to the middle shelves of Kentucky bourbons and Tennessee whiskies (Jack and George) with the motivated stand-alone stories paying subtle tribute, to the top shelf single malt Scotch and single barrels of truly amazing works who have used Lovecraft as a starting off point for their embarkation into the eldritch and arcane. We can find Victor LaValle’s 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom on the top shelf next to the Crown Royal black. Paying tribute to Lovecraft, this is also a remarkable work in that LaValle uses settings and themes reminiscent of Lovecraft while also telling a gritty, horrific story on it’s own. I thought of films like the 1987 Alan Parker film Angel Heart, Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film The Cotton Club and Eddie Murphy’s 1989 film Harlem Nights as LaValle has crafted a tale that brings to life the colorful and vibrant life of Harlem in the 1920s. (Even though Angel Heart was actually set later). Most compelling, though, is that LaValle has created a dramatic response to Lovecraft’s most racist story, The Horror at Red Hook. Lovecraft’s 1927 story describes a xenophobic anxiety about the multi-cultural mix of ethnicities in this section of New York. Whereas Lovecraft had used his own time’s intolerance of immigrants to produce a story of racist fear and loathing, LaValle turns the angst and temerity of the downtrodden against the white establishment, and produces a Cthulhu story set apart by its own audacity. This is a Lovecraftian story with a modern day twist. Recommended for fans of the New Cthulhu as well as horror fans in general, a very good read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings" I had just finished Lovecraft Country, and decided that apparently I needed more examination of racism in horror fiction in my life. This one is less than half the size, yet I read it at a much slower pace. That was not because it was bad by any means, but unlike Lovecraft Country, there was no comic relief to help you. This one was uncomfortable from start to finish, and LaValle didn't want you to take comfort from humor at an point. While it "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings" I had just finished Lovecraft Country, and decided that apparently I needed more examination of racism in horror fiction in my life. This one is less than half the size, yet I read it at a much slower pace. That was not because it was bad by any means, but unlike Lovecraft Country, there was no comic relief to help you. This one was uncomfortable from start to finish, and LaValle didn't want you to take comfort from humor at an point. While it is certainly a cosmic horror story (it's much more in conversation with Lovecraft than the book with his name in the title above), the most effective horror again lies in the real world. There was only one line in this book that made me feel a sense of emptiness and it was a simple one: "It was a guitar." (view spoiler)[The scene in question: a detective tells the story of shooting Tom's dad. He says he saw him holding a rifle. He emptied his gun into him, then did it again. Turned on the lights and saw it wasn't a rifle. (hide spoiler)] If one was judging solely on the feeling of discomfort, then this would be a masterpiece. It was uncomfortable in the real world setting and when the cosmic horror does kick in, it's uncomfortable there. (view spoiler)[Cutting off Malone's eyelids so he can't close his eyes was a nice touch. I can handle graphic horror in books, but eyes and fingernails are the two that always bother me. (hide spoiler)] It's well done in terms of that hopeless dread that Lovecraft was known for. Perhaps a touch too well done for my comfort, to be perfectly honest... which to be fair, is the point, and it should be praised accordingly. My main issues with the book are the transitions. Some of them (particularly in the first section of the book) feel awkward, almost like there's a deleted scene; one that made the transition smoother, but was deemed unnecessary for the story. This isn't the case every chapter break, but there was enough of them to take me out of the story for a few moments. Overall, this is a very solid read. In doing a comparison to Lovecraft Country (which interestingly not only came out the same year, but the SAME DAY), I would say this book honestly gets the horror better, but of the two I prefer the other. Still a solid 4/5 stars. "I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

  18. 5 out of 5

    Spencer Orey

    I picked this novella up for free and slowly read it on my phone whenever I was waiting for the bus. What will stick with me is the good focus on the racially charged New York of the early 1900s and the sketchy world of exploitatively evil white people doing magic within that.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    "The veil of ignorance has been set over your face since birth. Shall I pull it free?" While I'm generally familiar with HP Lovecraft and his work, including his Cthulhu mythos, I haven't read that much from him. From what I gather though, he was a hardcore racist, and one must look past some of the uncomfortable material in his work to get to the good stuff and appreciate him. It seems like this has been the case with author Victor LaValle, who begrudgingly considers himself a fan. B "The veil of ignorance has been set over your face since birth. Shall I pull it free?" While I'm generally familiar with HP Lovecraft and his work, including his Cthulhu mythos, I haven't read that much from him. From what I gather though, he was a hardcore racist, and one must look past some of the uncomfortable material in his work to get to the good stuff and appreciate him. It seems like this has been the case with author Victor LaValle, who begrudgingly considers himself a fan. But he decided to use this conflicted appreciation of the horror master as inspiration for his latest project. In this novella, he has taken what many consider to be one of Lovecraft's most xenophobic work, "The Horror at Red Hook," and remixed it, cleverly transforming it into a cosmic horror tale that is also a commentary on racial and immigrant prejudice, and a big clapback at Lovecraft's bigotry in his own work. The smell of age, meaning undifferentiated time, had settled throughout the home, a musty odor, as if the winds of the present never blew through here. I don't want to say much about the plot other than it's about a young black hustler in Harlem that does whatever it takes to survive as a black man in 1920's New York, the strange world he encounters in the underbelly of the city, and how these things affect and provide an outlet for his frustration and anger at the oppression that he must endure everyday. There's some great creepy imagery in this that LaValle handles masterfully and with a steady pace that sucks you in, making this short book hard to put down. A cataclysm was happening on Parker Place, and belowground the air here smelled of sewage and smoke and the threat of divination.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sadie Hartmann

    This was the first book I downloaded to my Kindle. What a way to break into the world of digital reading! At this point, it needs to be said that I've only read Lovecraftian-inspired literature but never any actual Lovecraft. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest. You don't need any prior knowledge of Lovecraft's work other than a slight brush against some of the more identifiable attributes of his mythos: An overarching cosmic ambiguity that is so massive or foreign to our understanding, it This was the first book I downloaded to my Kindle. What a way to break into the world of digital reading! At this point, it needs to be said that I've only read Lovecraftian-inspired literature but never any actual Lovecraft. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest. You don't need any prior knowledge of Lovecraft's work other than a slight brush against some of the more identifiable attributes of his mythos: An overarching cosmic ambiguity that is so massive or foreign to our understanding, it threatens the fragility of our finite minds. Oh! And anything with tentacles is an automatic nod to Lovecraft. *wink* *ahem* also, I guess it's important to note that H. P. Lovecraft was a racist. That being said, THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is Lovecraftian but it definitely has it's own style going on. LaValle layers in some appropriate social commentary so that while readers can easily identify the story's inspiration, we can also recognize it as breaking down some Lovecraftian walls. Set in 1920's Harlem (can all future books be set in the Roaring 20s pleeeease??) Tommy Tester is trying to live his best life. Amidst all his hustling and swindling he finds himself embroiled with this guy that is clearly bent on some kind of "otherworldly business". Later, the POV changes and the momentum of the story takes a swift dive into darkness. I absolutely had no idea what to expect with this novella! I didn't even read the synopsis. I only knew that everyone I know in the horror-loving community sings this book's praises, so I was determined to get into it at some point. This is a modern classic. When we go to compile our all-time favorite horror lists, you can bet THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM will make the rounds. Thrilling, clever, terrifying--I loved this read and will be picking up more from LaValle in 2020. Book Blurb: "A modern classic, this book deserves to be on everyone's shelves as the gold standard for Lovecraftian fiction. LaValle deals with Lovecraft's racist, antiquated, xenophobic undertones by allowing a new generation of readers to see the imaginative mythos through the eyes of Tommy Tester. Genius."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    Rating: 4.5* of five The Publisher Says: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorcer Rating: 4.5* of five The Publisher Says: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break? **2017 Hugo passes over this worthy novella**make it up to Author LaValle and buy his book** My Review: If I make a criticism of this wonderful story, it's the author's choice of the novella form to tell it. My critique (meant to be a helpful form of criticism, the latter of which leaves no room for action or explanation) is (view spoiler)[that Charles Thomas turned into Black Tom offstage and in a convenient hurry, which is also (hide spoiler)] about the issues that in part arise from that choice of form. Author La Valle's tasty new twist on the Cthulhu mythos is an example of later creators using the source material better than the original creator did. This story even nods to the man from Providence himself! I've left a wide swath of ten notes on highlights and they should all be read as part of this review. I particularly admire Author La Valle's depth of characterization in the limited space of a novella. Otis, Thomas's father, in particular comes to more vivid life in his short time on the age than he would have in the weaker, less passionate grip of a lesser writer. The evocation of Red Hook's louche miasmic atmosphere was shivery good; the notion of Flatbush as countryside where cottages and even a run-down mansion could exist, and mentions of "rural Brooklyn," left me verschmeckeled but in that time were plain old facts. And now for the truly, unspeakably, beyond-Lovecraftian terror contained in this work: AMC is making a TV series out of it in 2018. Be very, very afraid.

  22. 4 out of 5

    ¸¸.•*¨*•♫ Mrs. Buttercup •*¨*•♫♪

    I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day. This little book felt like reading a shorter version of The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. Unfortunately, I didn't like that book very much and so I wasn't entirely satisfied with this one either. In my opinion, even though these books are, more or less explicitly, inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft, I don't think they can quite deliver like he does in one very specific point. You see, when I read a book about occultism, mysteries of horrif I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day. This little book felt like reading a shorter version of The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. Unfortunately, I didn't like that book very much and so I wasn't entirely satisfied with this one either. In my opinion, even though these books are, more or less explicitly, inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft, I don't think they can quite deliver like he does in one very specific point. You see, when I read a book about occultism, mysteries of horrific other dimensions and unspoken horrors on unhearthly monsters; the premise makes my mind go wild with imagination on just how those horrors exactly look like. But, unfortunately, the big reveal is always less than the horror you imagined; and this is simply inevitable, as for the human mind the fear of the unknown is greater than the known, however horrible it might be. That is why Lovecraft, with his habit of leaving much to the imagination, is able to create in me a much bigger sense of unease than any explicit description could even cause. And that is exactly why this kind of books get me really gripped in the beginning, but usually disappoint me in the end. I appreciated the format of this one, and I am not saying this was a bad book by any means, just didn't quite deliver what it promised, in my very personal opinion.

  23. 4 out of 5

    ALet

    I do not know why, but this simply wasn’t for me.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Woodbury

    These days there's much discussion about what to do with the difficult legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. What do you do with one of the founders of modern horror who was not only racist but includes those views in his writing? If you're a person who reads widely or likes to deep dive, at some point you may find yourself confronting the question of whether you should read Lovecraft and what it means. I have good news for you. You don't need to read Lovecraft anymore. Instead, you can read THE BALLAD OF B These days there's much discussion about what to do with the difficult legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. What do you do with one of the founders of modern horror who was not only racist but includes those views in his writing? If you're a person who reads widely or likes to deep dive, at some point you may find yourself confronting the question of whether you should read Lovecraft and what it means. I have good news for you. You don't need to read Lovecraft anymore. Instead, you can read THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM. LaValle has done something incredible. He's written a Lovecraft novel with themes of racial injustice at its center, turned Lovecraft's legacy on its head. And his real feat is that by giving his book a strong emotional center, he's surpassed Lovecraft. I read a bit of Lovecraft, I appreciated the weird and the dread and the undercurrent of malevolence in his books, but I never felt like I could burrow myself into one and live in it. There's a coldness to Lovecraft. I don't know if LaValle wanted that same coldness. He certainly holds the reader at arm's length. But there is a big fat beating heart in this book no matter how careful and calculated it is. This is a book that is more about feelings than it is about Cthulu. It is more about shame and hatred and anger and what those feelings do to you than it is about the weird and supernatural. This is my third LaValle book and I am consistently excited by his work. He does things no one else does. I don't know where his books will take me. And that's one of the highest compliments I can give.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay

    The story of a black man in 1920s New York is pretty horrible even without fantastic elements. Black musician and con-man Thomas Tester runs afoul of a witch-like creature and actions of the police afterwards drive him to a horrible fate and an even more horrible outcome for the world around him. Another one of the many recent riffs on Lovecraft, and an excellent one at that, this is apparently a version of the Horror at Red Hook. Lovecraft himself was famously racist, and telling a story largely The story of a black man in 1920s New York is pretty horrible even without fantastic elements. Black musician and con-man Thomas Tester runs afoul of a witch-like creature and actions of the police afterwards drive him to a horrible fate and an even more horrible outcome for the world around him. Another one of the many recent riffs on Lovecraft, and an excellent one at that, this is apparently a version of the Horror at Red Hook. Lovecraft himself was famously racist, and telling a story largely about racism through a lens of his work is quite brilliant.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    There has been backlash against H.P. Lovecraft in recent years, mostly due to the man's racism and other hateful views...which were, by many accounts, extreme even for his time. This leads to some conflicted feelings among fans of horror and fantasy. Without a doubt, Lovecraft was one of the 20th century's most influential and important writers of dark fiction. I read him quite a bit as a teenager, and enjoyed many of the stories; there was just something really, really fascinating about his wor There has been backlash against H.P. Lovecraft in recent years, mostly due to the man's racism and other hateful views...which were, by many accounts, extreme even for his time. This leads to some conflicted feelings among fans of horror and fantasy. Without a doubt, Lovecraft was one of the 20th century's most influential and important writers of dark fiction. I read him quite a bit as a teenager, and enjoyed many of the stories; there was just something really, really fascinating about his work. That said, I would have a hard time reading these tales now, knowing what we do about the man. As such, I was delighted by this novella by Victor LaValle, which does an amazing job of capturing the cosmic horror of Lovecraft's style while simultaneously offering a modern-day critique of that same work. The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of The Horror at Red Hook, which is generally accepted to be one of HPL's most bigoted stories. I found LaValle's book to be fast-paced and exciting, and I really liked the character of Tommy Tester. I would recommend this to anyone looking for an interesting and original take on Lovecraftian Horror. At the same time, I don't think it's necessary to have read Lovecraft's fiction in order to enjoy this (even though some familiarity might offer helpful context); the novella certainly stands on its own merits.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Johann (jobis89)

    4.5 stars. The kind of Lovecraft-inspired stories that I love to read. Full review to come.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mir

    [Edit: Need to reread and rerate. Now that I've read the HPL story on which this was based, I think some of the flaws are intentional and indicate a desire to mirror traits of the original story.] Good, but also disappointing. As a reworking of the Lovecraft mythos, it was excellent, creative and original, if lacking the depth of Emrys' "Winter Tide". (4 stars) The historical setting was very well done (4 stars) as was the incorporation of real-life social and political issues (4 stars). The chara [Edit: Need to reread and rerate. Now that I've read the HPL story on which this was based, I think some of the flaws are intentional and indicate a desire to mirror traits of the original story.] Good, but also disappointing. As a reworking of the Lovecraft mythos, it was excellent, creative and original, if lacking the depth of Emrys' "Winter Tide". (4 stars) The historical setting was very well done (4 stars) as was the incorporation of real-life social and political issues (4 stars). The characters had a lot of potential (3 stars) but it wasn't developed enough, partly due to the short length of the book (2 stars), and partly due to the prose being very telling-rather-than-showing (2 stars). I found Detective Malone especially opaque, although kudos to LaValle for not making him a stereotypical bluff blue collar cop drawn by chance into supernatural danger (3 stars). The plot seemed solid but again, the book felt too short. It seemed as if the author had a great idea, wrote a solid draft, and then decided to publish while the Lovecraft Revamp market was still hot rather than polishing it. Overall 3.5 stars, rounding down because I feel convinced LaValle could do better. I finished this filled with the desire to rain down (or up, I supposed) chtonic destruction on an unjust world, and also to eat alcapurrias.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gary

    LaValle's Hugo nominated novella is a reimagining of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos through the eyes of a poor, Black street musician from Harlem. The story itself has a rhythm all its own, but also builds the kind of "creeping dread" plot structure that Lovecraft was famous for. Thematically, The Ballad of Black Tom has more in common with Richard Wright's "Native Son" than anything the famously racist Lovecraft ever wrote, as the protagonist Tommy Tester is eventually browbeaten into becoming the LaValle's Hugo nominated novella is a reimagining of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos through the eyes of a poor, Black street musician from Harlem. The story itself has a rhythm all its own, but also builds the kind of "creeping dread" plot structure that Lovecraft was famous for. Thematically, The Ballad of Black Tom has more in common with Richard Wright's "Native Son" than anything the famously racist Lovecraft ever wrote, as the protagonist Tommy Tester is eventually browbeaten into becoming the monster that white America assumes him to be anyway. He finds he has more purpose as a servant of ancient evil deities than he does living with the boot heel of racism pressing on his neck everyday. I liked this story a lot, particularly the expertly written sequences of gothic horror. Many of the supporting characters come off as little more than caricatures (perhaps intentionally?) and LaValle displays a tendency to whack the reader over the head with his thematic points, but there isn't much else to complain about. This is a terrific horror tale.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    Creepy and atmospheric novella. I really liked the style of writing and the Lovecraftian Cthulhu theme..

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