Thursday, April 25, 2019

Victor Lavalle - The Ballad of Black Tom

***Contains Spoilers***

I've never really had much time for the works of H.P. Lovecraft - all those over-long descriptions of eldritch horrors tended to put me off. But plenty of people are, and Victor LaValle is one such fan, though his distaste at Lovecraft's racist views is highlighted by his dedication - "For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my complicated feelings".

But in this short novel LaValle gets his revenge on Lovecraft by taking his genre and characters and turning them into a brilliant critique of a racist society. Set in a Lovecraftian New York, LaValle's short novel begins with Tommy, a small time wheeler-dealer who is constantly trying to make ends meet, in particular to help out his father. Tommy is also a talentless musician who dreams of the big time, but isn't good enough (indeed his one shot at the big time was terminated after one song when the band ditched his efforts).

Tommy is picked up by a wealthy, white, businessman Robert Suydam who wants him to play at a party - a party that is part of summoning the nameless horrors that exist "outside". New York here is not our New York, but a close parallel where magic is real. This 1920s "Jazz Age" world is different, but much the same. Crooked, racist cops kill Tommy's father in a painful scene that is reminiscent of countless accounts of US police killings of poor black people today. Suydam wants to fix this, but not through a Civil Rights movement:
Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It's all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence... But what if that could change? ... When the Sleeping King awakes he will reward us with dominion of this world. And all your enemies will be crushed into dust.
So Suydam dreams of releasing the nameless horrors of the other world in order to free humanity, and, in particular, free the oppressed and downtrodden. It's an excellent setup, that neatly skewers Lovecraft and inverts the horror genre. But the book is more than a great idea - its brilliantly written, gasp out loud horrible in a couple of places, and nicely paced to an excellent climax. Most interestingly is the trajectory of Tommy who goes from a relatively harmless hustler (who defaces a book of magic to prevent it being used for evil) to full on monster; driven, not by a glimpse of the nether-world, but by racist violence.

I suspect those who know Lovecraft's work well will get a lot more out of this than I did. I did not know, until after I'd finished it, that some of the characters, principally Suydam and the detective Malone, are straight out of what two writers describe as Lovecraft's "most bigoted story". But even if you don't know Lovecraft's work I'd recommend this short novel as an excellent addition to the growing body of fantasy and science-fiction that is tackling big questions of racism, oppression and bigotry.

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Solomon - An Unkindness of Ghosts
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