Nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, and Shirley Jackson Awards,* The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine little novella, made accessible to horror dilettantes by the graciousness of Tor.com. Set in New York City in the 1920s, it is apparently the author’s answer to a more than vaguely racist Lovecraft classic where he lamented all those immigrants in NYC.
For me, some transitions felt extremely choppy, and now that I read an analysis of the source material, my suspicion is that LaValle was hewing too closely to the original. When I was pondering how what I would say in my review, I was thinking about characterization and trying to pinpoint if that was the problem, but it wasn’t, not really–the characters felt very real to me, well drawn at that moment in time. It’s just that their personalities as the story evolved didn’t seem congruent. The more I thought on it, the more dissatisfied I became; I believed Tom’s somewhat easy-going con-man approach, the earnestness of his father, the fanaticism of the older white dude. So it wasn’t a character creation issue. But once I understood that LaValle was trying to force his characters to follow–and yet subvert–the original, it made sense. Marlow didn’t make much sense to me at all, but I think we can lay that at Lovecraft’s feet.
Atmosphere is well-crafted. LaValle definitely captures a sense of time period, and then the eerie, especially the visits to the elderly woman, and then the bloody violence. The party of thugs didn’t make sense, but again–Lovecraft. I guess that’s the problem with parodies/spoofs/riffs: the failings of the source material.
The writing is solid and the imagery is vivid. Overall, worth reading if you are a fan of Lovecraftian horror**, or bloody folk tales, or revenge fantasies.
*I’ll leave off mentioning the GR Choice Awards, because this site as a conglomerate has terrible taste. Not you people, of course. All the other ones who seem to think Pierce Brown is the only one in the world that can write Sci-Fi, and J.K. Rowling Fantasy. I won’t speak on Stephen King and Horror because I’m not qualified***
**Brief side rant on Lovecraft: I am annoyed by his writing. It’s cumbersome, florid, and dated. Just because there are otherworldly beings that want to eat the human race alive doesn’t mean the dude gets a whole genre in his name. Otherwise we should call everything that has monsters wanting to be men Shelley-horror. Doesn’t work, does it?