For H. P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.
—Victor LaValle, dedication to The Ballad of Black Tom
Harlem is no longer terra incognita for the Cthulhu Mythos. Harlem Unbound (2017) details the historical Harlem of the 20s and 30s for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, writers like Peter Cannon feature in briefly in fiction such as “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon. But when Lovecraft lived in New York and wrote “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired by the slums of Brooklyn where he found himself, alone in a single apartment in 1925, he only mentions Harlem in his letters—he did not try to set fiction there, did not try to put himself in the shoes of a black man in New York City.
Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom goes where Lovecraft did not go, and explores the viewpoints that the man from Providence did not. The plot is as straightforward and deceptively simple as it ambitious: to take a story where Lovecraft vents his spleen against the city of immigrants he found himself in, and look at it from another point of view. A basic premise that conceals a thousand little complications…
Like many authors who have elaborated on Lovecraft’s Mythos, LaValle cannot help adding his own little contribution: Zig zag zig, the Supreme Alphabet. This is part of the doctrine of the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that was founded in Harlem in 1964. The name comes from the idea that ten percent of the world knows the truth, and keeps eighty-five percent of the world ignorant; only five percent know the truth and work to enlighten the rest. Its presence in 1925 might be an anachronism, but the Five-Percenter-based mysticism integrates well with the Mythos on this point; certainly no worse than the Jewish Cabbala does in Lovecraft’s original story.
In addressing Lovecraft’s original narrative, LaValle keeps the basic timeline and series of events—even incorporating bits and pieces of Lovecraft’s original, distinct language, putting them into the mouths of characters like Suydam and Det. Malone, who are both retained. What he jettisons are the worst of Lovecraft’s racism and mythology.
“The Horror at Red Hook” was written before “The Call of Cthulhu,” and in place of Lovecraft’s Mythos is a confused mishmash borrowed from articles on the occult and demonology from the Encyclopedia Britannica. LaValle’s tying together of “Red Hook” with the later mythology actually strengthens the story considerably from Lovecraft’s original.
The xenophobia and bigotry of Lovecraft’s original is muted, seen through a different lens. The Ballad of Black Tom is a black man’s story, and the main character’s positive relations with Black British immigrants from the Caribbean, the cosmopolitan mixing-pot of the Victoria Society, is emphasized.
If there is one criticism for the story, it is embodied in a single character:
“I felt in danger for my life,” Mr. Howard said. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.”
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 65
“Ervin Howard” is the private detective that murders Otis Tester. A “lawman down in Texas long ago” (ibid. 81), he is an out-an-out bigot, violent, unscrupulous. The kind of man that could get away with killing a black man with impunity in the 1920s—and does. The violence and the bigotry are not reasons to criticize the character; Howard is pivotal to LaValle’s narrative as the catalyst for Black Tom’s transformation. The name is the thing.
Robert Ervin Howard was a pulp writer from Cross Plains, Texas—he would turn 19 years old in 1925, and his first story in Weird Tales would be published in that year. In 1930, Howard would begin a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft that would last the rest of his life. The Texan would commit suicide in 1936, after creating a number of popular serial characters including Solomon Kane, King Kull, and Conan the Cimmerian, all of whom would go on to enjoy literary and cinematic afterlives.
The choice to use Howard as a kind of rotten Easter Egg in The Ballad of Black Tom is a strange one. Certainly, Lovecraft and Howard were both racists and white supremacists; their shared correspondence published as A Means to Freedom illustrates the commonality of prejudice from men living in very disparate parts of the United States during the 1930s. But Howard had nothing to do with “The Horror at Red Hook,” though he had read the story when it appeared in Weird Tales and praised Lovecraft for it. So the choice of name seems odd, and perhaps a bit needless.
The character, however, is essential.
Those six men fired fifty-six rounds at Black Tom.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 134
Injustice is the central theme of the African-American narrative in the United States. From slavery to segregation, from the struggle for civil rights to Black Lives Matter, both the black population as a whole and the individual have struggled as the eternal underdogs, a minority population that faces naked prejudice, misrepresentation, and institutional inequality. In the 1920s, Jim Crow was the law of the land. In 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer, nominally in self-defense. Same story, different decade. In LaValle’s narrative, it is this injustice which fuels Tommy Tester’s transformation into Black Tom. The cruelty of the world drives him to the kind of misanthropy which marked Lovecraft’s own darkest narratives.
It would be a misrepresentation to say that in the narrative of The Ballad of Black Tom, it is ultimately Tommy Tester’s interaction with white people (and, by extension, the police) that drives the whole story. That would imply that Tester was at fault, that if he had only stayed in his place, all would be well. Yet is that the case? The murder of Tester’s father at the hands of Howard is presented as business-as-usual; the impact of the event is not so much that it happened as that the systems of justice meant to prevent it from happening don’t apply to black people. The system was broken, long before Tommy Tester appeared in it; if it had not been Howard that shot his father, it might have been another white man on another day—and the result would be the same.
The second half of the narrative belongs to Det. Thomas J. Malone—here, treated much less sympathetically in Lovecraft’s narrative. Malone’s prejudices are less explicit than Howard’s, but he watches and does nothing, gives orders and expects to be obeyed. Malone is sympathetic to Suydam, because he can relate to him; the detective never expresses the same sympathies to Tommy Tester. The supreme shock to Malone’s system is the eye-opening experience when he realizes that “The Horror at Red Hook” is really Black Tom’s story, not Suydam’s. As revelations go, it’s a good one.
A man originally from Rhode Island but now living in Brooklyn with his wife proved so persistent a pair of officers was sent to the man’s place to make clear he wasn’t welcome in New York. Perhaps his constitution was better suited to Providence. The man left the city soon afterward, never to return.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 136
This is the final knowing-wink that LaValle gives to the reader, and not without reason.
H. P. Lovecraft married his wife and moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn in May 1924; in December of that year he would move into a room in Brooklyn Heights, his wife traveling to work and visiting him only periodically. It was during the following 15 month interval of living alone in New York City that Lovecraft wrote “The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air,” and began the research and writing of his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature; “The Call of Cthulhu” was conceived during this period, but not written until after he returned to Providence in 1926. He would return to New York many times before his death in 1937, but only for visits with friends or his wife, never to live there again.
The shadow of H. P. Lovecraft hangs over The Ballad of Black Tom, and to an extent the entire Mythos. Writers who seek to explore his works look for the bits unwritten—and Victor LaValle found one, a rich country which Lovecraft had, deliberately or not, overlooked as he sought to realize the horrors of New York City in the 1920s. The success of The Ballad of Black Tom lies not so much in writing a Mythos novel set in Harlem, but in bringing the feel and flavor of Harlem, and what it meant to be a black man in Lovecraft’s New York, to readers who had never considered that before—and while it may not have redeemed “The Horror at Red Hook,” LaValle offers readers a new and powerful perspective on the story.