Victor LaValle is a pretty terrific horror writer whose books take the real-life horrors of racism and add monsters. The 2016 novella The Ballad of Black Tom is the third of his books that I’ve read, and they’ve all been enjoyably intense and weird.
I understand that this book is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, specifically “The Horror at Red Hook,” but I haven’t read enough Lovecraft (one story, years ago) to really appreciate the connection. I just appreciated that this book went all-in on the weird while maintaining its coherance.
Set in 1920s New York, the book opens with a street musician and hustler named Tommy Tester. After delivering an occultic book to a customer (ripping out the last page to keep her from using it), Tommy is invited to play his music for a wealthy white millionaire named Robert Suydam even though he’s not actually a very good musician. From there, it becomes clear that Robert is up to something, something involving forces beyond the world as we understand it, and he wants Tommy to get involved. Trying to uncover the plot is Detective Malone, who has seen enough to know that there’s more to the world than what is seen.
The book is both about fighting monsters and becoming a monster and the temptation to marshall one evil to fight another. I suppose that makes the book sound like a moralistic parable, but it doesn’t feel like that. Because it’s short, there’s not a lot of time to dwell on character motivations and crises of conscience. It just poses the problem: If monstrousness exists in many forms, who’s to say which one is the worst? And it does so with a satisfyingly creepy story, with some moments of truly gruesome horror.