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Cover image for The ballad of Black Tom
The ballad of Black Tom
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : A Tom Doherty Associates Book, c2016.
Physical Description:
151 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
"A book"--Title page verso.
"People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there. Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping. A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?"--Provided from


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One of NPR 's Best Books of 2016, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, the British Fantasy Award, the This is Horror Award for Novella of the Year, and a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

"LaValle's novella of sorcery and skullduggery in Jazz Age New York is a magnificent example of what weird fiction can and should do."
-- Laird Barron, author of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

"[LaValle] reinvents outmoded literary conventions, particularly the ghettos of genre and ethnicity that long divided serious literature from popular fiction."
-- Praise for The Devil in Silver from Elizabeth Hand, author of Radiant Days

"LaValle cleverly subverts Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos by imbuing a black man with the power to summon the Old Ones, and creates genuine chills with his evocation of the monstrous Sleeping King, an echo of Lovecraft's Dagon... [ The Ballad of Black Tom ] has a satisfying slingshot ending." - Elizabeth Hand for Fantasy & ScienceFiction

Author Notes

Victor D. LaValle is an assistant professor in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

FIFTY YEARS AND MILLIONS OF WORDS AGO, when Joyce Carol Oates was in her late 20s, she wrote a story about an unhappy teenager named Connie who accepts a ride, unwisely, from a dark, glib young man who calls himself Arnold Friend, and although that story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," is scrupulously realistic, it is also a classic tale of horror. It is, in its chillingly objective way, scarier than anything in Oates's new collection, THE DOLL-MASTER AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR (Mysterious Press, $24) - which, as it happens, contains a story about another teenage girl who gets in the wrong car. The smooth-talking male predator in this new one, "Big Momma," keeps a very large metaphor as a house pet: the title character is a 20-foot-long reticulated python. There's nothing of the supernatural in either story, or for that matter in any of the "tales of terror" in the present collection, but Oates's brand of horror has never required the invocation of other worlds: This world is terrible enough for her. Everything she writes, in whatever genre, has an air of dread, because she deals in vulnerabilities and inevitabilities, in the desperate needs that drive people like Connie and poor young Violet of "Big Momma" to their fates. A sense of helplessness is the essence of horror, and Oates conveys that feeling as well as any writer around, whether the powerlessness in question is that of a victim or, as in the title story of "The Doll-Master," that of someone who is unable to stop doing harm to others: Obsession can be a kind of vulnerability, too. Lately I've been thinking about what constitutes "horror" in fiction, because the forms the genre takes have become so fluid, so different from the older models of stories about monsters and otherworldly creatures and even malign lingering spirits. Although all those sorts of things still creep and crawl and slither through the popular imagination, and reliably generate the desired fear and loathing in the reader, a lot of fiction these days seems less interested in producing great shocks than in creating a pervasive, generalized sense of unease - monsters that don't so much chase us as surround us, like something toxic in the air. Peter Straub has been writing that kind of fiction for nearly as long as Joyce Carol Oates has, and like her he doesn't always need a ghost or a vampire or, God knows, a horde of zombies to give his readers the willies. In his fat recent volume of selected stories, the perfectly named INTERIOR DARKNESS (Doubleday, $28.95), the supernatural content is relatively light. The book's first, and most horrifying, story, "Blue Rose," is about a psychopathic boy who becomes adept at hypnotizing his little brother; it's about the need to bend the world to the shape of one's own warped perceptions, to wring reality's neck until everything goes blessedly quiet. There are stories here that play with language and time for the purpose, it seems, of recreating the sheer noise of existence, stories that wonder what kind of narrative we can make out in the fog and chaos of words. Even when Straub goes a little Lovecraft, as he does in the late novella "The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine," the effect he's aiming for isn't quivering terror, but something more like muted awe - an eye-widening revelation of a wrongness at the heart of the universe. In all his stories, the interior and the exterior darknesses tend to leak into each other. Eight years ago, he edited a terrific anthology called "Poe's Children," subtitled "The New Horror," which made a persuasive case for broadening the definition of the genre, or maybe ceasing to think of it as a genre at all. The book included writers as diverse as Kelly Link, Dan Chaon, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, Graham Joyce and M. John Harrison, and the stories, different as they were from one another, shared a sense of horror as something numinous and elusive, too tricky to be approached head-on. One of those writers, Brian Evenson, has a new collection of stories called A COLLAPSE OF HORSES (Coffee House, paper, $16.95), which embodies this hard-to-define aesthetic pretty strikingly - or maybe what it's actually doing is disembodying something else. Evenson's fiction is stark and often jaw-droppingly funny. In "The Dust," a nearly conventional science-fiction horror tale, you will find, for example, this sentence: "Orvar was certain, or fairly certain, that he hadn't slit the man's throat himself." Some of the stories here evoke Kafka, some Poe, some Beckett, some Roald Dahl, and one, a demonic teddy-bear chiller called "BearHeart(TM)," even Stephen King, but Evenson's deadpan style always estranges them a bit from their models: He tells his odd tales oddly, as if his mouth were dry and the words won't come out right. "How is he to know where one thing starts and another ends?" asks one of Evenson's characters, and that, in a nutshell, is the nature of horror in his fiction: the condition of being unable to identify any boundaries. A character in the brilliant title story suffers from a sort of epistemological panic: "Not knowing is something you can only suspend yourself in for the briefest moment," he thinks. "No, even if what you have to face is horrible, is an inexplicably dead herd of horses, even an explicably dead family, it must be faced." He puts the people in his fiction through a lot: confinement, mutilation, cognitive blurring and quite a bit of what Daffy Duck once characterized as "pronoun trouble": His characters can misplace their sense of themselves in midsentence. "No, I doesn't sound right. I can't do it: he." They're as mad as Poe's narrators and as stoic as Buster Keaton. Is this horror? I think it is. Or he does. Michelle de Kretser's slender novella SPRINGTIME (Catapult, paper, $11.95) carries the subtitle "A Ghost Story," but it's the wispiest spook story imaginable: a domestic tale in which the ghost seems almost an afterthought, an apparition that frightens only mildly and that haunts only as a metaphor for other varieties of loss. De Kretser, a native of Sri Lanka who has lived in Australia for many years, specializes in a sense of displacement, a feeling of not being fully present wherever you are - even if, like her heroine in "Springtime," you've only moved from Melbourne to Sydney. The story meanders, distracted and digressive, looking at everything but the ghost, taking in the chatter at dinner parties, walks with dogs, games with children, the small dissatisfactions of a partner, until you realize that all these drifting, hovering bits of everyday life are, for this sad woman, the ghost. This is a gorgeous, delicately surprising piece of writing, horror - if it is - at its most melancholy and most elusive. It's like spirit photography, all fuzzy outlines and unaccountable light: a snapshot of something that may or may not exist. THE LONEY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), a first novel by Andrew Michael Hurley, is considerably longer and denser than "Springtime," and it accommodates a few real horror-story jolts, but it, too, seems more interested in creating unsettling moods than in scaring the wits out of its readers. The setting's the dominant element in this book, a bleak, wild stretch of northwest England in which, Hurley writes, "the wind, the rain, the sea were all in their raw states, always freshly born and feral." This forbidding landscape features, improbably, waters that are reputed to heal the sick, like the waters of Lourdes, and to the magic spring a group of Roman Catholics make a pilgrimage, driven by the determination of one devout mother to "cure" her mute, somewhat retarded son. The longtime inhabitants of the region are a weird, unwelcoming bunch who are, in the traditional manner of close-mouthed rural folk in horror stories, obviously up to no good. "I often thought," writes the narrator, looking back on his childhood experiences in this strange place, "there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should." Another character, in a diary, puts it this way: "It was ... a dark and watchful place that seemed to have become adept at keeping grim secrets." The weather of "The Loney" is English - overcast, thick with ambiguity - and when the heavens open nothing can protect you. It's an atmosphere for ghosts, for slaughtered animals, for pagan rituals, but Hurley, unexpectedly, uses this lowering horror-movie place as the setting for a serious drama about the nature of faith. The terrors of this novel feel timeless, almost biblical: There are abominations here, and miracles. As ambitious as "The Loney" is, though, it's clearly horror fiction, by even the narrowest definition. And no one would be tempted to call Victor La Valle's ingenious THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM (Tor/Tom Doherty, paper, $12.99) anything else, either: This darkly witty tale is right in the belly of the genre beast. The dedication reads, "For H. P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings," and La-Valle's short novel is in fact a subversive reimagining of Lovecraft's 1927 story "The Horror at Red Hook," in which the fearsome creatures who ruled the earth before humanity are (perhaps) preparing for a comeback in Brooklyn. Lovecraft's mythology of the Old Ones has proved nearly as durable as the beasts themselves, with hundreds of writers feeding off it like hungry puppies; it's a rich, though not especially healthy, diet. La Valle's "conflicted feelings" are appropriate. Lovecraft's powerful pulp visions are contaminated by racism, anti-Semitism and rabid xenophobia: In "The Horror at Red Hook," black people and immigrants appear to frighten him at least as much as the huge, unspeakable monsters slouching toward Brooklyn to be reborn. LaValle sets his story during the Harlem Renaissance and places at its center a young black con man named Tommy Tester, who gets involved in the occult shenanigans of a rich man who means to raise the "King who sleeps at the bottom of the ocean" and "the Great Old Ones." In this version of the Red Hook story, much more is awakened than a bunch of big ugly monsters, and the emotions LaValle evokes are well beyond what Lovecraft, even at his best, was capable of. The old master could do terror. LaValle can do pity and terror, as some older masters could: The horror of "The Ballad of Black Tom" comes close to tragedy. LaValle's book could, I suppose, be considered postmodern horror, in the way it uses a genre work from the past for radically different purposes. But that sounds a little bloodless, and "Black Tom" is not. The writing is full of rage and passion: love for the vanished culture of 1920s Harlem and love - conflicted - for crazy Lovecraft. There's a whiff of the postmodern in Paul Tremblay, too, as he showed in last year's wonderful "A Head Full of Ghosts," which riffed on "Exorcist"-type novels of demonic possession, and as he demonstrates again in the new DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL'S ROCK (Morrow, $25.99, available later this month). This time he cobbles together motifs from Stephen King's boys-book mode (like the story "The Body," which was filmed as "Stand by Me") with the missing-child kind of plot that's now ubiquitous in suspense fiction, and winds up with something that resembles neither. The novel is never, at any point, exactly what you expect it to be, and even when it's over you might not feel you know what really happened to 13-year-old Tommy Sanderson, vanished in a warm New England night. Are there ghosts involved, or merely "felt presences"? In the end, what kind of horror this is, what kind of novel this is, doesn't seem to matter. Like the other writers I've been reading, Tremblay is most interested in the in-between places, in feelings that are indeterminate and perhaps unknowable, like Tommy's teenage sense of neither-here-nor-thereness: "Sometimes," he writes in his diary, "I think that I'm more than halfway disappeared already." His sister, two years younger, lives in that nowhere, too: "The night of her room is fuzzy around the edges, the continued slippage of reality feeling probable, inevitable." And as reality slips and skitters into dark corners, writers like Tremblay keep trying to catch traces of it, in the present and in the past. A mysterious character named Arnold turns up in "Disappearance at Devil's Rock"; his Snapchat user name, a joke and a sly hommage, is "arnoldfrnd." These current horror writers are Oates's children and Straub's children as much as they are Poe's, and in their books you can see both where the genre's going and where it's been. TERRENCE RAFFERTY, the author of "The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies," is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

Library Journal Review

Charles Thomas Tester is not a very good musician, but he can fake it well enough to make a rough living hustling on the streets of Prohibition-era New York. He takes a job at the home of Robert Suydam, a wealthy man from Red Hook, only to find Sudyam's occult ambitions involve opening a portal to other dimensions and summoning the Sleeping King to Earth. -VERDICT LaValle (The Devil in Silver) crafts a gem of a Lovecraftian novella, cleverly keeping his horrors just offstage. The real power of the story is Tom's experiences of prejudice as a black man living in early 20th-century Harlem, and how he overcomes and subverts that prejudice, taking on whatever role he has to in order to get by: he is "Charles" to his father, "Tommy" to his friends, and eventually "Black Tom"-one to be feared.-MM © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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