The mid-1920s New York of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a sprawling metropolis that’s well on its way to becoming a different kind of powerful place. That’s thanks to the machinations of a select few with knowledge of the old gods that exist separate from their own.
As the ‘20s roar on and people go about their everyday lives, a gargantuan king of eldritch horrors slumbers beneath the ocean, dreaming of the day when he might reawaken with the help of loyal followers who wish to restore him to power. But for all of the Lovecraftian mythos woven into The Ballad of Black Tom, the most chilling and devastating things about the novella have less to do with tentacled monsters from the deep and more about the racism that the story’s central character, Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester, has to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Similar to Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, The Ballad of Black Tom turns H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy of real-world racism into a core part of its otherworldly mythos. LaValle is very careful to leave much of the larger world and certain details about Tommy’s life—like how he came to be aware of the city’s secretive community of people dealing in magical items—bathed in shadow in order to give the entire story a dreamlike quality that pushes you to flesh things out for yourself. Though Tommy’s somewhat clued into the existence of the supernatural as the story begins, the author emphasizes how the man is more than skilled at navigating strange, often treacherous worlds where he isn’t welcome. That’s because he also happens to be a Black man living in Harlem who frequently makes money by doing odd jobs all around the city.
When Tommy boards the subway to venture into faraway Queens, he moves through the world with a knowingness that comes with being a Black man whose livelihood depends on his ability to take on risky jobs that others wouldn’t if they knew the immediate dangers they posed. At multiple points throughout The Ballad of Black Tom, Tommy acknowledges that the work he does—like delivering cursed pages from ancient tomes to little old ladies whose shadows belie the truth about what sort of creatures they actually are—sometimes involves the occult. However, it’s a job where Tommy’s meant simply to play the guitar at a party that ultimately ends up being the inciting event that changes his life and ushers in a new era of Chthonic chaos with the potential to ravage the world.
When Robert Suydam—an eccentric, wealthy white man—walks up to Tommy on the street and offers him hundreds of dollars to play at a party, Tommy instinctively knows something’s off about the man, if only because Suydam’s friendliness is out of the ordinary. Where all of the other white people on the street merely tolerate Tommy’s presence by pretending he isn’t there, Suydam sees Tommy and recognizes that he’s purposefully trying to minimize his visibility. Like all of the white characters who come to play important roles in the plot, Suydam’s motivations are initially a mystery because Tommy has no way of truly knowing just what it is that he wants with him.
Though Suydam’s presented as being a well-meaning weirdo who simply wants to help the main character, Tommy quickly learns from a pair of crooked cops tailing the man on orders from his family that there may be more to him than he realizes. Because Tommy’s main goal is to be able to provide his aged (but not elderly) father Otis with a modicum of comfort and to personally avoid the life of back-breaking work that wore his father down, he can’t stop himself from getting involved with Suydam.
The Ballad of Black Tom’s brevity allows for the novella’s more impactful ideas to rise to the surface in large part because of how clear they are. Though Otis recognizes that Tommy sees himself as a grown man capable of handling himself, he still expresses a desire to keep his son safe whenever he wanders beyond the blocks that define Harlem into the rest of the segregated city away from his own people. The Ballad of Black Tom doesn’t make clear whether Otis is aware of the sorts of shady dealings his son gets into, but it doesn’t really have to because the fear he feels for Tommy’s life is the fear that all Black parents have when considering how their children might come face to face with anti-Black racism out in the world. All that Otis can do for Tommy in the end is to arm him with a simple blade that he himself once carried, and a song Otis learned from Tommy’s deceased mother, and have faith that those two things will serve Tommy well.
As Tommy spends more time with Suydam in the days leading up to the party where something is meant to happen, the author uses moments when Tommy leaves Harlem—his home—to convey that he’s repeatedly traveling between worlds. When Suydam eventually reveals what his grand plan is, Tommy’s taken aback by it but only so much because, on some level, the idea of stepping through portals into dimensions where ancient, destructive power exists isn’t entirely foreign to him.
The Ballad of Black Tom’s final chapter places the book firmly within the canon of stories warning about the dangers of trusting Good White People™, but Tommy’s story closes on a much larger, more conceptual question about what might become of a person if they were granted the power to change the world by Cthulhu. The story’s answers to the question aren’t clear, but they’re quite gruesome and at times unpleasant to mull over, which is also what makes them fascinating and worth spending some time with.
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