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A novella written by Victor LaValle and published by Tor Books in 2016. The story is essentially a rewrite of H.P. Lovecraft's notorious short story "The Horror at Red Hook."

Before we go further, let's take some time to discuss Lovecraft in the 21st century. After decades of critical neglect, Lovecraft has become accepted in the last few years as one of the most influential horror and fantasy writers in history. The mainstream critics are a long way behind horror fans, who have been fanatically loyal to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos almost from the moment HPL died. Lovecraft's extensive correspondence with other writers, including Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and dozens of others, influenced the development of horror fiction in the first half of the 20th century, and the popularity of the Lovecraft Circle has influenced fans and creators ever since. You will be hard pressed to locate a horror writer who hasn't been inspired by Lovecraft's stories -- and who hasn't written his or her own pastiche of his works.

But Lovecraft had some very significant problems of his own that hinder attempts to spread his fandom more broadly -- namely, that he was a racist. And not in that "Oh, everyone was racist back then" sort of way that you can kinda ignore. He was a full-on racist. And this wasn't racism that he kept private -- he was very public about his racism, and it showed up prominently in several of his stories. He'd probably always been a bit racist -- you might expect it from a sheltered, slightly snobbish man from New England who idolized an archaic British society he hadn't even been born into. 

But that changed in 1924, when Lovecraft got married and moved from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City. He was not very successful at finding work, but his wife had a successful hat shop and was able to pay all the bills. But when the shop failed, and she moved out of the city for a job, Lovecraft continued to be unsuccessful at job-hunting. He had very few marketable job skills, and he really felt that as an intellectual and "aged antiquarian" (he was just 34 years old at the time), most jobs were beneath him. So he had no money and no job, and he lived in the racially mixed Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn among blacks, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, Polish people -- none of them the noble English aristocracy he aspired to be, and all of them managing life better than he was. His low-level racism, fueled by his fear of poverty and his resentment of not living his preferred lifestyle, blossomed into high-level racism and bigotry -- not merely against African-Americans but against white people he didn't feel were pure enough.

The direct result of this period of Lovecraft's life was "The Horror at Red Hook," which was published in Weird Tales in 1927. This may be the most disliked Lovecraft story -- it's a poorly written story, and even Lovecraft was dismissive of its quality -- and the level of xenophobia is absolutely noxious. Lovecraft's racism showed itself in other ways, too -- the protagonist's cat in "The Rats in the Walls" is named after a racial epithet, and one chapter of the multi-part "Herbert West, Re-Animator" is devoted to a monstrously racist depiction of a black boxer. Most significantly, Lovecraft's racial attitudes became a major theme of his fiction -- the fear of horrific sub-humans interbreeding with pure human stock can be seen in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "Arthur Jermyn," "The Dunwich Horror," and others.

Ultimately, that may be what makes Lovecraft's horror tales so powerful. He managed to take his own fears -- unfounded though they may have been -- and used them to create fiction that has influenced generations of creators and fans.

Nevertheless, even though many fans enjoy Lovecraft's work -- including a not-insignificant percentage of people of color -- the depths of Lovecraft's racism have become more difficult for people to stomach, particularly in a time of increasing diversity. More writers and fans are talking about how to address the fact that the most influential horror writer since Poe has stories you'd be ashamed to show your non-white friends. The World Fantasy Award decided in November 2015 to change their award statuette from the Lovecraft bust they've used since 1974.

And now -- finally -- we return to LaValle's novella.

LaValle is an African-American writer who loves Lovecraft's stories, even knowing that HPL was a racist. In fact, he dedicated the book "To H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings." As he says in an interview with Dirge Magazine:

He feared non-white people. He feared poor white people. He feared women. He damn sure feared New York City. And yet, to his credit, he actually transferred that sense of horror to the page. He couldn’t filter it out and that’s one of the things that made him great. If I lost that I’d lose the thing that makes him a singular artist.

So rather than completely reject Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, LaValle decided to subvert it.

And so we meet Charles Thomas Tester, 20-year-old black man living with his slowly-dying father Otis in an apartment on 144th Street in New York City. Otis is a fantastic musician, but Tommy is really pretty bad. He knows only a few songs on the guitar, and his singing voice is not at all good. Still, he roams the city wearing a nice but carefully threadbare suit and carrying a guitar case. The case is empty so he can carry illicit merchandise inside -- Tommy is a smuggler of unusual artifacts, and he's been hired to obtain and deliver a small book called The Supreme Alphabet to a rich white woman in Queens called Ma Att. She pays him well for the book, but doesn't realize that he's secretly removed the last page of the book to keep her from causing too much mischief. 

Soon enough, he's on the radar of a wealthy, occult-loving man named Robert Suydam, who invites him to play music at a party he's giving at his home. Immediately afterwards, he gets acquainted with a corrupt private detective called Mr. Howard and a weak-willed, occult-loving police detective named Thomas Malone, who are tailing Suydam. Otis fears for his son's life -- it's not smart for a young black man to be seen in certain neighborhoods after dark -- but the lure of easy money is too much for Tommy to resist. He meets Suydam once in his home prior to the gathering and learns some of his host's occult powers -- Suydam shows him visions of the Sleeping King under the sea, which is more than enough to convince Tommy to skip the party the next night.

But when he gets home, he learns that Mr. Howard killed his father while trying to find the last page of the Supreme Alphabet for Ma Att. Alone in a racist society that considers him barely above an animal, Tommy sees no better solution than to return to Suydam and his gospel of overthrowing the world to benefit the downtrodden. But when he learns that Suydam's guests are the criminal dregs of the world, he realizes that the problem is not a hateful, racist political regime -- the problem is mankind itself. And Charles Thomas Tester makes a dangerous, fateful choice.

Days later, Robert Suydam has an army of followers, a new headquarters in Red Hook, and a new lieutenant -- Black Tom, a grim black man wearing a natty suit and carrying a bloodstained guitar. But is Black Tom merely the assistant? Or is he calling the shots for something much more terrible than anyone expects?

This is a fairly short book -- just about 150 pages, and I was able to read it in just a couple of days. But it packs a lot of horror in those pages -- not just cosmic horror, but the terrors facing black men from Harlem in the 1920s. It changes the Robert Suydam from "The Horror at Red Hook" from a garden variety sorcerer villain to a more three-dimensional -- and more pitiful -- character. And Det. Thomas Malone, the weirdly poetic and sensitive NYC cop from "Red Hook" stays fairly sensitive but gets to be more active and more interesting.

And the best flip of all -- Lovecraft's most racist story gets a new star, a black man who serves as both hero and villain. We see New York through his eyes, see the violent cops, see the dangers of the subways and the new neighborhoods and the white kids who follow him looking for fights. We see his own prejudices, his friends, the difficulties in finding honest work when everyone is allowed to cheat you. We watch him make the terrible decisions that happen in horror stories -- and in the end, you realize that for Tommy, those decisions were actually the right ones. He ends up as a murderous supernatural destroyer -- because why shouldn't he? When the whole world is against you, is working to grind you down, to destroy your family and friends, whether or not they obey the laws, to disregard you as a worthless, ignorant beast -- well, why not just pull the curtain down on the human race? Yes, of course, to the reader, we can think of more socially acceptable solutions. But consider if Lovecraft had written this story -- Black Tom would've been the villain solely because he was a monstrous, deformed, black-skinned cartoon. LaValle gives us a smart, ruthless, terribly powerful African-American villain with extreme but logical motives.

Lovecraft might have deplored this story, with its more enlightened view of black people, of New York, of a society geared to crush people just because they have the wrong skin color. I suppose we'll just have to live with phantom Lovecraft's disappointment. Because it's a great story, and you'd love reading it. Go pick it up. 

Reading the book

I found The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle to be a pure delight to read. It’s a fabulous novella. The story is very much in a dialog with (and functions as a razor-sharp rebuttal to) the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook.” Narratively, this is a re-telling and very smart expansion of Lovecraft’s story and features a young black protagonist, Tom Tester.

(Spoilers follow; if you don’t want to know the ending of the book before you read it for yourself, continue no further. And yes, it’s rather different than Lovecraft’s story.)

Tester’s evolution from being a bit of a hustler but an essentially decent, caring young man to a sorcerer who murders an entire room full of police and sets the stage for Cthulhu’s awakening is shown to be the direct consequence of the unrelenting brutality of white supremacy. In contrast, the second viewpoint character, Detective Malone (who is the protagonist of Lovecraft’s original story) is shown to drive the plot largely through his selfish curiosity and callous disregard for the people the police bully and murder. Malone could have been Tester’s ally, could have saved the world, but he constantly retreats into his own privilege and turns a blind eye to the horrific injustices happening right in front of him.

At the climax of the book, Tester literally and figuratively removes Malone’s blindness by slashing off the detective’s eyelids with a razor blade and forcing him to behold Cthulhu sleeping in his lair. The rest of the commentary in the book is just as cutting. In the original story, the somewhat brutish private investigators that Malone is forced to work with go without names or dialog. In LaValle’s retelling, there’s just one ham-fisted P.I., and he’s named Howard, after Lovecraft himself.

For me, the greatest moment of horror in the book came not from any Lovecraftian abominations but in Howard’s casual description of his murder of Tom’s disabled, harmless father in his own home, which is chillingly familiar to anyone who’s paying attention to the police brutality that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement:

Mr. Howard pointed at the building. “Because of the orientation of the apartment, the back bedroom faces an air shaft. This left the back room in darkness. After defending myself, it was discovered that the assailant had not been brandishing a rifle.”

Malone, who’d been watching Tester steadily, offered, “It was a guitar.”

“How many times did you shoot my father?” Tester asked.

“I felt in danger for my life,” Mr. Howard said. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.” (LaValle 54-57)

The thing that most impressed me about LaValle’s novel is the dialog he engages in throughout the narrative with Lovecraft’s original story. For instance, in the scene where Tester visits Suydam, the cult leader’s speech is largely a direct quote of Lovecraft’s text:

“Your people,” Robert Suydam began. “Your people are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It’s all sound and filth and spiritual putrescence … Policemen despair of order or reform and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion,” he continued.

Tommy held the neck of the guitar tightly. “You talking about Harlem?”

The spell broke. “What?” Suydam said. “Oh damn you! Why did you interrupt?”

“I’m trying to understand what in the hell place you’re talking about. It doesn’t sound like anywhere I’ve ever lived.” (LaValle 39).

In these exchanges, LaValle pointedly highlights and exposes the pernicious racial lies embedded in the original story, fixes Lovecraft’s world building problems by giving people compelling human motivations, and deepens the story through his own retelling. It’s a masterful piece of work. This is an excellent novel for anyone who wants to see how a modern retelling of a biased story can tackle the issues head-on.

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