Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom reimagines H.P. Lovecraft’s original story “The Horror at Red Hook,” notorious for being one of the most blatantly racist stories by the older author. “Red Hook” was originally published by Weird Tales in 1927, but it’s notably racist even for the time period. Additionally, Lovecraft himself wasn’t much a fan of the story. Some of Lovecraft’s proteges and biographers (Lin Carter the former and ST Joshi the latter) agree with his assessment. I don’t think there’s a need for me to agree with others, but I’ll just add in my personal dislike for the story, its narrative device (used to better effect in “Randolph Carter”), and the unchecked xenophobia, which is more than uncalled for.
Black Tom has won awards and was nominated for many others, primarily because it manages to add story beats that give the characters purpose. If “Red Hook” had been submitted to us, we’d likely have passed on it for multiple reasons–foremost the aforementioned racism–but even if that was missing, it would be because the action scenes are bland and the stakes are nearly impossible to discern. Simply put, readers don’t really care about the main character; Thomas Malone, an Irish-American police detective; nor the villain, Robert Suydam. What’s in play/at risk is impossible for the main character to prevent, and the villain’s motivation is lacking, at best. And that’s why Black Tom is as successful as it has been.
Suydam’s motivations, the calling forth of an Old One to hopefully remove humans from existence, are far better explained than in “Red Hook,” Malone’s knowledge and understanding of magic are heightened and explored in more detail, and finally, Black Tom, the African-American servant/slave of Suydam, is given his own storyline and motivation, rather than just being exploited by Suydam. His is Tommy Tester, a hustler who pretends to be a street musician in order to act variously as a transporter for magical items and books, and as a scammer using his position and knowledge to blackmail or extort money from people higher up on the food chain.
While almost everything about Black Tom is better than Lovecraft’s original, I do feel as though the mundanity and simplicity of LaValle’s language doesn’t carry the same appeal as Lovecraft’s more grandiose verbiage. I realize this is about personal taste rather than objective criticism (if such a thing exists), but when dealing with the scene-setting of pulp fiction, particularly that of Mythos-inspired literature, I vastly prefer the complex and perhaps archaic phrasing. Matt thinks the more stripped-down prose makes the story more accessible, but I’m just not a fan. There’s a time and place for short, direct sentences (Hemingway or Carver or Pinter), but it’s not when describing the ultimate evils ready to awaken and destroy all of existence.
I went back and reread “Red Hook” after about 10 pages of Black Tom because I wanted to see what I might be missing since it had been a long time since I read Lovecraft’s original, but LaValle really did his homework, so it wasn’t necessary to reread at all. LaValle’s story is simply better constructed, includes all the important details, adds new appropriate story points, and is all around a more entertaining experience. If you really want to have Lovecraft’s verbosity in your head, just read a different story (I recommend “At the Mountains of Madness”) and let LaValle tackle “Red Hook” for you instead. The Ballad of Black Tom is worth your time and money.