cover image The Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom

Victor LaValle., $12.99 trade paper (155p) ISBN 978-0-7653-8786-8

Shirley Jackson Award–winner LaValle (The Devil in Silver) cleverly retcons H.P. Lovecraft’s infamous story “The Horror at Red Hook,” retelling it with a new protagonist (the titular Charles Thomas Tester, a splendidly Lovecraftian name) and a literary veneer that recalls Chester Himes. Tester, a con artist in 1924 Harlem with a minor awareness of the occult, occasionally masquerades as a street musician, playing the guitar (poorly) while pulling his hustles. When he’s approached by the eccentric Robert Suydam to play at a party, he knows something’s awry, but the money’s too good to pass up. Before his gig, he encounters a pair of detectives; one is Lovecraft’s original protagonist, Malone, and they both seem to know more about Suydam and Tester than would be expected. Once Tester goes to his gig, Malone takes over as the lead character, and LaValle ably conveys both the horrors he encounters and a reconciliation with the original text. The story adeptly addresses social and racial issues that were central to urban life at the dawn of the 20th century, with obvious resonances and parallels in the present. Those familiar with Lovecraft’s (weaker) story might get a little more from this novella, but it stands well on its own. (Feb.)