Welcome to the last installment of The Sinister Reader for the month and the finale of February is for Love(craft)! I have very much enjoyed these and I hope that you all have too. Getting the chance to babble about my favorite books is always a good time for me and if I introduce someone to a new favorite for them, all the better. This month has brought up a fairly interesting bunch of reads, all different from each other and all from different perspectives that I felt like challenged and really expanded what Lovecraft was about and what he wrote. Like I said with my honorable mention review of The Fear Institute, I wanted to include other voices specifically to showcase books that I felt did a good job of giving a new perspective to the material and really highlight those marginalized voices that the original author would have preferred just disappear altogether.
While some might criticize this as pandering to political correctness or trying to virtue signal, I think it should be noted again that this was actually a pretty decent challenge for me, even before I decided to start doing these reviews. By that, I mean it was a bitch to find even the ones that I found that adhered to my rigorous, incredibly demanding two points that I wanted included. To refresh anyone who hasn’t been reading along, here was my demands for how these books made it on my review list: They were Lovecraftian stories (either adapting his stories or original stories that used elements that he made famous) that had to feature, as the main character, the perspective of a person of color OR someone who was LGBTQ. The story had to be from their point of view and no stereotypes allowed. I have a legitimate interest in finding other voices adapting Lovecraft’s ideas because I think that there is a world of way more interesting takes on the material that we have been sleeping on for far too long and horror is richer for every entry that dips its marginalized toes in those waters. It’s not surprising and completely understandable that there are authors out there who are people of color or people who feel like this was never meant for them who aren’t interested in taking this author’s racist diatribes and horrible depictions of themselves and others to make something better of it. That said, when they do step up to the plate, they can elevate this genre into something new, intense and beautifully heartbreaking. And there is no better example of this than my number one pick for my list: Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.
Once again, we are heading back to The Horror at Red Hook for our source material. If you haven’t read the original, allow me to save you the trouble of reading one of Lovecraft’s weakest stories. In extremely purple prose, Red Hook is about a police detective, Tom Malone, who was assigned to keep tabs on a man named Robert Suydam, whose family was concerned about his well being after he started associating with foreign people. (Yes, that’s basically all it took to get fingers twitching towards the pearls back in the day. Remember that this was the 1920s and there was quite the stir if someone dared to stray from their racial lane.) To sum up unfairly: Police officer is hired to investigate an older man who has suddenly gotten younger and gotten engaged to a girl way out of his league. There’s some hinting of cult activity but they find nothing during the first raid. Mystery man has a pretty shitty wedding night after he and his new wife are killed and when Malone goes out to figure out what he’s been hiding after the world’s least effective first raid, he makes his way to the basement they originally overlooked and discovers that mystery man has been dabbling in mysterious powers and can be reanimated. Shit happens, rocks fall, almost everyone dies, Malone is afraid of large buildings because Red Hook has bigger buildings than the suburbs. I’m glossing over a lot but most of this story is really difficult and unpleasant to read, between the wretched way that he describes people who are evil for the sake of their skin color and the absolutely tedious prose. Even for Lovecraft, this was pretty bad in both its ideologies and its execution. And then Lavalle came and spun this story into gold.
The Ballad of Black Tom follows the title character, as ballads typically do, who is actually Charles Thomas Tester before he’s Black Tom. Tommy is a black man in 1920s New York, hustling and doing what he can to provide a stable life for himself and his father. Immediately we see the difference between Tommy and his father, Otis, a man whose body has been defeated by a lifetime dedication to trying to earn an honest living in a dishonest and biased world. Tommy’s world is dangerous already but it becomes even more dangerous when Robert Suydam hires him to provide entertainment for guests of a certain mysterious persuasion. After accepting the invitation, Tommy’s life takes a tragic turn and Black Tom is born. From there, the perspective shifts to investigating detective, Tom Malone. He takes us through the gory and heartbreaking conclusion of what becomes of a man who has been broken down and given the chance to touch something eternal, horrifying and more powerful than anything he’s ever known. The conclusion of the story comes back to Tommy and it is a gut punch of emotion as he sees what his one decision has brought about and how it will affect not only himself but everyone and everything he has ever cared about.
This review might be a bit more sparse than the others, if only because it really does cut the fat when it comes to the story. This is partially because it is a novella that was adapted from an equally short narrative to begin with. That said, unlike its original source material, Black Tom makes sure that it doesn’t load the plot down with too much going on at the same time. It’s simple and focuses on the major players of the story. This really does a lot to bring the characters to life in a way that never could happen in Red Hook, originally. A lot of this is because Lovecraft’s original story was written in his trademark colder, almost more academic leaning kind of observer narrative that tells you everything you needed to know in the aftermath. Lavalle brings us right into the lives of the people this story directly affects and the pay off is immediate. Not only do we get the perspective of Tommy Tester but we get these vivid snapshots of what his life in Harlem is. That said, while we get these lovely snippets of who his father is and who is friends are, enough so that we enjoy their presence, Tommy is our main man and we’re going on this ride with him, specifically. This is one of the ways that I feel like this story is superior to Lovecraft Country, in that it gives us every bit of the injustice that Tommy is subjected to but we also get a sense of his life beyond it all. We get a sense of him living with his father and the difficulties but also the love that he has for him as well as those around him. It’s a subtle difference but it makes a huge impact in how much richer his character feels. And you are going to feel for him because his progress through this story is dogged by the absolute ignorance and bigotry that surrounds him.
We also have a better fleshed out Malone here too. Again, in the source material, Tom Malone is just the unfortunate sad sack who got saddled with the job of following some guy around and discovering that he was involved in something horrifically vague and somewhat terrifying. He’s not given much for a personality as he recounts, with some horror, the things he’s seen and the only hint that we have that he was really disturbed by any of it is that he’s now really unsettled by the sight of big buildings. By contrast, Lavalle’s Malone is quite a bit more nuanced and there’s a lot more to him. He’s still an observer of the story but this time, it’s as the action is unfolding rather than after the fact, which does a lot to give us a sense of who he is and what he stands for. This also adds layers that were just kind of pasted on before. I think it really is a testimony to Lavalle’s talent that he never has to shove in our faces what he’s worked into the story, but rather allows the reader to uncover it as they see fit. He takes the clueless dork of the Lovecraft tale but makes him something both better and worse. Someone understandable and yet more cowardly. This is something that plays a huge role in the end of Black Tom.
Unlike the white characters in Lovecraft Country, Tom Malone isn’t inherently evil and isn’t out to necessarily get Tommy, though he does keep an eye on him for less than nobel reasons. Just like in the source story, Tom Malone is a detective that does a lot of watching but this time, you get more of a sense of why he does what he does. If you weren’t aware from the name, Tom Malone was like a kind of 1920s baby step into almost thinking about including diverse characters by including someone who could be said to be Irish. There are no markers to suggest that he’s anything but American Irish, mind, but the name is something that people would have noticed. Making him Irish seems like nothing these days, especially since Ireland isn’t exactly known for having skin colors darker than snow, but this was something that mattered a bit in the 1920s and could be used as its own source of discrimination. That’s not to say that this element of the story wasn’t hamfisted in and it wasn’t completely a throw away thing to make the original character seem like anything other than Lovecraft’s usually favorite clueless dork protagonist. What makes the difference in Black Tom is that Lavalle actually did something with it. Malone gets by because of his skin color but he’s still other by the standards of the day. It adds a kind of understanding to his role as a passive narrator, allowing him to be a lot more complex than he needed to be. It makes it that much more gut wrenching too when you realize that Malone’s fate in the end is earned, not through what he did but what he failed to do. He was never going to risk his own social status to stand up for him but it cost him far more in the end.
If you read my previous review, you might recall that one of my criticisms of Lovecraft Country was that while it did an amazing job of showcasing the horror that was being black in Jim Crow America, it was a lot lighter than I would have preferred on the Lovecraft aspect of things. They are there but they tend to take a backseat in a lot of ways to the real horrors. While there are some who might prefer this tale to go that route, Lavalle proves to his readers that you don’t have to choose between the horrors of the void and the horrors of what people are capable of. In fact, it weaves both into the story seamlessly, the horror that comes from the racism directly feeding into the plot and how the supernatural horrors are dealt with. If you’re not familiar with the source story or you aren’t that much of a Lovecraft fan, you won’t be lost without the originals but it’s still full of nods and understandings of where it came from that you will be satisfied by what you see. Even when they give you that glimpse of everyone’s favorite elder god, it’s creepy as hell and really nails that sense of what lurks below, dreaming of the day it will rise. The dread the story creates is haunting and the end will have you thinking about Tommy and what becomes of him for some time to come.
Again, if I’m being a bit shorter on this review, it’s because I truly can’t tell more without spoilers and I very much want you all to pick this book up. I cannot oversell how well this story is written. Seriously, my only complaint is that it’s over so fast. The Ballad of Black Tom is genuinely one of those stories that there is nothing that I can think of that would make it better but I just didn’t want it to be over. That said, it’s probably for the best that it isn’t that long because this story is seriously heartbreaking as Lavalle takes you with Tommy, letting you feel the visceral rawness of the tragedy that he experiences as well as the callous racism that he has to contend with. The pathos almost hurts but in a way that makes the ending so much more meaningful. There is something so real about the powerlessness that he makes you feel with his main character and the fact that he does it in a fraction of the time that it would take other authors to flesh out over a number of books is a testament to Lavalle’s ability. For everything it adds, everything it tackles with such grace despite providing such a visceral, unflinching view of it, everything it manages to weave into the story so seamlessly, The Ballad of Black Tom is my number one pick for my February is for Love(craft) reads!
And that is it for this month! I hope you’ve enjoyed this first month of sinister reads and I very much hope you’ll come back next month for the next book on The Sinister Reader! You can expect the next book review to come out on Wednesday March 18th but those who don’t want to wait that long will be able to get it on March the 4th by contributing to my Patreon! Higher level Patrons will even be able to find out what’s coming up early and be able to participate in decisions on what books will be covered and other goodies. If you’re interested, you can follow the link! And if you’re interested in reading some more free horror fiction, do come back on Monday for a new update for my serial Hello Dolly! If horror films are more your thing, come back every Friday for Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you about horrible, weird, wonderful or horribly wonderful and weird forgotten horror films. Until then, thanks so much for coming on this ride with me through February! Happy reading and may your night lights burn brightly until dawn!